Sunday, February 16, 2014

Downs Deal - A Window into our Present State Government?

This week three past and present State Fair Commissioners, Republicans appointed by Republican Governors including Susana Martinez, gave testimony suggesting Martinez (or Jay McCleskey) improperly pushed through a contract to help one of her campaign contributors.

One, Tom Tinnin testified that Martinez had tried to intimidate him, in a way no other governor ever had. Martinez appointee Charlotte Rode, testified “They wanted to keep the process secret . . . everyone involved was somehow connected to Jay McCleskey.”

The Downs at Albuquerque “racino” deal, which may exemplify how the Martinez Administration conducts state business, was worth a billion dollars. Martinez let it go through like a petty cash purchase of paper clips.

I talked with Tinnin, who served on the State Board of Finance and Administration for 16 years, under four governors. He quit when Martinez tried to intimidate him. His Committee had the final word on the deal. The proposal looked far too favorable to the Downs and unfavorable to the State. It was a very long lease, and the Downs had proved a very bad manager.

The RFP process for the new lease was a joke. Tinnin had chaired the State Fair Commission for 6 ½ years. The Commission put out such an RFP for at least 90 days to garner national attention and maximize competitive bidding, and advertise it nationally. “We had interest from New Jersey to California.”

When Martinez came in, things changed. The controversial RFP was for 30-days, making the current lessee a prohibitive favorite, since there'd be no national advertising and few competitors would manage to bid.

At the time, the deal looked questionable, as former State Senator Steve Fischmann remarked recently on radio. It generated many allegations and calls for investigations.

I wonder how much potential this case has for awakening centrist voters who've never looked closely at our Governor.

For one thing, it seems to symbolize a lot of the problems in her Administration: an air of secrecy, disappearing emails, intimidation, dubious-looking assistance to a campaign contributor, and McCleskey's central role.

Secondly, the key witnesses weren't progressives, but Republicans with an old-fashioned taste for good government. Tinnin is a rich Republican. Charlotte Rode is a reform-minded Republican with seven kids and a record working as a legislative assistant for Republican State Sen. Mark Boitano, who calls her “a straight shooter.”

Third, the whole thing was painfully obvious: the deal would benefit a campaign contributor; therefore Martinez created an extraordinarily favorable process for that contributor, and tried to intimidate folks who realized that. It was a backroom deal in RFP clothing.

When the eventual RFP came before the Board of Finance and Administration, Tinnin was still on the Board and had expressed concerns about the deal. Martinez invited her to visit him. “She tried to tell me that it was all kosher, how wonderful it was,” but he reiterated his concerns, which she couldn't really answer. “Then she looked at me and said, 'If you disparage any of my people in a public platform, I'm going to take it personally.' Later she said it again. The third time she said it I said, 'Governor, why don't we just agree to disagree.' I'm not going to be intimidated or have my integrity undermined.'” He resigned that day.

The irregularities in this deal are too numerous to list fully here. State Sen. Tim Keller has asked the AG to investigate whether Martinez handpicked the RFP selection committee, in violation of the procurement code; intimidated Commissioners to approve the lease; had staff communicate improperly with Downs during the process; let non-state employees conduct state business; and other issues, including why the Downs, which hadn't made all its payments under the previous lease and had let barns and stables deteriorate badly, was scored as an excellent manager. (Omitted are possible open records act violations.)

Keller was one of the few senators to voice serious concerns about the deal at the time. Asked by Keller during the recent hearing whether the problem was mismanagement or “money and politics?” Tinnin replied, “I think this was planned and they got what they wanted.

On Martinez's behalf, it's fair to ask two questions. Didn't her Democratic predecessor also try to help the same people in some ways that didn't smell too good? (Richardson was pushing Downs, despite its allegedly sloppy management and breaches of contract; and he tried to offer the Downs not just 25 years but 40.) And why the furor now? (Some of the same people have been saying the same things and seeking an investigation since 2011.)

But it's also fair to suggest answers: The widespread sense that Richardson was corrupt was a major reason Martinez was elected. People sought exactly the kind of change she hasn't delivered. And it's fair to wonder if the Downs's critics have been right since 2011.

Whether or not the deal broke the law, it's a pretty clear example of governing for political and financial gain rather than for New Mexico.

[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 16 February in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

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