It doesn’t get much darker in the annals of Albuquerque negative political campaigning. More than a week ago, a mysterious group began running an ad on the city’s television stations. The first image is of State Auditor and Albuquerque mayoral candidate Tim Keller, quickly followed by a dark figure wearing a hoodie. “Sex offender” in bold red letters flashes on the screen before cutting to a backlit child riding a bike.
Billboards later sprung up in the city.
Little information was available about who paid for the ad, which began running on Sept. 13. But late Thursday night, less than 24 hours before Make Albuquerque Safe, the measure finance committee that paid for the ad, had to disclose its contributors, the developer of the vast Santolina land project said in an email statement that he was a financial backer of the committee.
In his statement, Jeff Garrett, CEO of Garrett Development Corporation and Asset Manager for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, said he funded the ads because he found Keller “lacking” generally as a candidate and that he was “soft on crime” in particular.
In a campaign finance report filed Friday at noon with the Albuquerque City Clerk’s office for Make Albuquerque Safe, Garrett reported contributing $30,000, or half of $60,000 the committee collected through Sept. 21.
The other half came from Mark Veteto, of Veteto Properties in Hobbs. It appears Veteto is the same Mark Veteto of Me-Tex Oil & Gas identified by New Mexico In Depth in 2014 as one of the biggest political donors in New Mexico elections from 2011 through 2014.
Hobbs-based Goal Advocacy, an oil and gas organization, identified Veteto on its website as president of both Me-Tex and Veteto Properties.
From 2011 through 2014, Veteto contributed $150,359 to mostly Republican candidates, including Gov. Susana Martinez and U.S. Congressman Steve Pearce, according to a New Mexico In Depth analysis.
New Mexico In Depth has attempted to contact Veteto to ask him why he is interested in opposing an Albuquerque mayoral candidate.
Keller’s campaign released a statement Friday afternoon calling it offensive “to suggest that Tim would let anyone harm our kids, let alone make life easier for those who do.”
But, the campaign said, it is no surprise Garrett is behind the ad.
“The motivation for these attacks is clear. Arizona developer Garrett has millions of dollars on the line and will lose big if they don’t have friends in city hall; that’s why he is using offensive images and accusations regarding children and criminals to scare our community into making him money.”
Garrett is not new to power politics. The anti-Keller ad is the second time Garrett has given big in local elections over the past 18 months, making an impact in last year’s Bernalillo County Commission race when he funded New Mexicans for New Mexico, a political action committee that went after a Bernalillo County Commission candidate, Adrian Pedroza. Pedroza, who was running to replace outgoing commissioner Art de la Cruz, opposed the Santolina project. He lost to Steven Michael Quezada, who has since voted in favor of Santolina plans.
Garrett’s company, Garrett Development Company of Arizona, was contracted to manage the Santolina project by Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, the company seeking to develop a vast land-holding in western Bernalillo County. At full build-out, Santolina would hold homes for 90,000 people, creating a new city of sorts on Albuquerque’s west side.
In a press release on September 14, Keller, who appears to be the frontrunner in the mayoral race, highlighted support he’s received from sexual assault victim advocates and said the negative ad comes from “well-connected right-wing special interests who are worried they won’t have a buddy in city hall.”
But Garrett is not worried about having a “buddy” as mayor because most of the Santolina development is not in Albuquerque, his statement said.
“With only two percent (2%) of WALH’s holdings located in the City we are not worried about having a “buddy” as Mayor,” he said.
“We are PRO JOBS and PRO Business,” Garrett said. “We work hard to attract employers to the City. This work is complicated by Albuquerque’s crime and education problems. Tim Keller’s SOFT-ON-CRIME legislation only makes economic development recruitment harder.”
Keller won the endorsement of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association this week, in part, because of “his commitment to bring competitive wages to APD, fund equipment for the department, launch an aggressive recruiting effort, and because of his crime plan,” Sean Willoughby told the Albuquerque Journal.
Garrett does not mention in his statement that whoever is elected Albuquerque mayor will have some say over the Santolina development.
The mayor sits on the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, a joint body of the city and county that will approve or disapprove water planning for the Santolina development needs.
In 2014 Water Authority Executive Director Mark Sanchez explained the organization’s role in rendering an opinion on major planned developments.
“If the Santolina Level A Master Plan is approved by the Bernalillo County Commission, only then will Water Authority staff proceed in negotiating a draft development agreement with the developer,” Sanchez wrote in a letter dated July 29, 2014, to staff at the Bernalillo County Planning Commission. “Of course, final approval of any development agreement requires formal action by the Water Authority governing board.”
Albuquerque’s Mayor holds a seat on its decision-making body. Combined with three city councilors, city officials have a majority on the utility’s governing board.
The 2011 legislation being used by the political committee to attack Keller was sponsored by State Senator Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, and would have prevented municipalities from creating zones in which sex offenders could not live. It did not eliminate the ability of judges to place restrictions on where sex offenders could live.
“Tim Keller’s SOFT-ON-CRIME legislation only makes economic development recruitment harder,” Garrett said in his statement. “It is impossible to explain away how Mr. Keller supported the most hideous criminal offenders in society.”
The state’s Sex Offender Management Board, which is charged with developing and recommending to New Mexico Sentencing Commission best practices in the management and treatment of adult and juvenile sex offenders, supported the legislation.
The board, in a written position, said it did not support residency restrictions, according to Senate Bill 184’s fiscal impact report.
“Imposing blanket restrictions has had a destabilizing impact in every jurisdiction where it has been implemented and most experts believe that it is dangerous and counterproductive,” the report states.
The bill failed to pass when up for a vote on the Senate floor.
New Mexico In Depth will update this report if Mark Veteto responds to our request for comment.