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Former candidate for New Mexico land commissioner avoids lawsuit with apology

December 5, 2018

Unsuccessful state land commissioner candidate Garrett VeneKlasen has apologized to current Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn for a campaign attack ad that insinuated Dunn was corrupt.

Thus, VeneKlasen, a Democrat, last week settled a defamation lawsuit filed in June 2017 by Dunn. The case had been set to go to trial Monday.

“I, Garrett VeneKlasen, did not intend to state or suggest Aubrey Dunn was corrupt, self-dealing or dishonest,” he wrote in his apology. “I did not intend to claim or allege that Aubrey Dunn negotiated the route of the transmission line across his ranch property or was involved in any way with the determination of the route of the transmission line. I apologize to Commissioner Dunn for the trouble this has caused him and his family.”

In the apology, VeneKlasen referred to the proposed SunZia high-voltage electric transmission line, a project to transport energy from Southern New Mexico and Arizona to western markets.

VeneKlasen couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Dunn has said that at the time he and his wife closed on the ranch in December 2014, they knew the SunZia route would be somewhere in the area but that the company hadn’t said the route would cross the ranch before the closing.

The route wasn’t known until January 2015, when the federal Bureau of Land Management announced the location.

VeneKlasen’s radio ad said: “Our current land commissioner bought a ranch for himself. Normally, that’s not a problem, but as commissioner, he negotiated a deal to run a billion-dollar power line not only through state trust land but also through his personal ranch property. That’ll lead to a lotta money flowing his way. It must be a coincidence, huh? Nahh. … If honesty were leather, the state Land Office couldn’t saddle a flea.”

In response to the lawsuit shortly after it was filed, VeneKlasen said his campaign stood by the ad.

“We welcome a full and public examination of Dunn’s practices while land commissioner,” VeneKlasen said in a statement at the time. “… We stand by every word in our campaign ad. Voters deserve to know the truth and it’s time we held politicians accountable.”

Although the VeneKlasen suit has been settled, others involved in his campaign, including campaign manager Alan Packman, may still be on the hook.

In a letter to Packman and two out-of-state political consultants this week, Dunn’s lawyer, his son A. Blair Dunn, demanded an apology by Dec. 24 — or a defamation suit against them would follow.

Packman, who now works in Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s administration, couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Blair Dunn’s letter to the three said documents collected as evidence in the VeneKlasen case “established your involvement and the decision of the campaign to take ‘credit’ for the public statements that the campaign ‘chased politician Aubrey Dunn’ out of the land commission race.”

Voters never got to choose between Dunn and VeneKlasen. The land commissioner’s race turned into a game of political musical chairs.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed last year, Dunn announced he would not seek re-election but would instead run for the congressional seat in Southern New Mexico. He later dropped out of that race, switched his party affiliation to Libertarian and announced he was running for U.S. Senate. He later dropped out of that race to make way for former Gov. Gary Johnson, who lost a three-way race for U.S. Senate to incumbent Democrat Martin Heinrich.

On the Democratic side, former Land Commissioner Ray Powell Jr., who was running for another term, dropped out of the race and endorsed Stephanie Garcia Richard, who beat VeneKlasen in the primary and went on to win the general election.

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