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Gov. Aide Threatened To Ax Expo Manager

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An audiotape of a private conversation involving the governor’s chief of staff, Keith Gardner, is best known for Gardner’s comments about his limited use of the state email system and his obscene remarks about Senate Democratic leader Tim Jennings.

The recording was made in October 2011 without Gardner’s knowledge but not made public until last month.

Gov. Susana Martinez says Gardner and Jennings have moved on and so should we – although Jennings didn’t sound much like he had even after a Gardner apology.

But, in any case, there is more to the tape.

During the conversation with a Roswell man, who recorded it without Gardner’s knowledge, Gardner talks about finding the man and his wife jobs in state government. Neither was eventually hired.

“We got enough idiots out there,” Gardner says. “We can always replace one of them.”

The chief of staff says the administration may be looking for a new manager at Expo New Mexico.

“I’m about to fire that (expletive),” he says. “I’m so pissed. God, they screwed up that one.”

Gardner doesn’t mention Expo General Manager Dan Mourning by name, but Mourning was and still is in the job.

Gardner also doesn’t talk on the tape about how he thinks the manager fouled up, but Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell says his remark was in reference to a reduction in force at Expo.

The state Personnel Board approved an RIF at Expo at a meeting in September 2011 after it had to be tabled at an earlier meeting, Darnell said.

Board minutes show it tabled a proposed Expo RIF in July 2011 but approved two others in August 2011 and September 2011.

Darnell declined to say why Gardner didn’t follow through on his plan to fire the Expo manager.

When Gardner made his taped comments, there was something much more controversial developing at Expo: the process of issuing a new lease for the horse-racing track and casino at the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque.

Just two days before Gardner’s comments, there was a front-page story in the Journal about how at least two State Fair commissioners were questioning the process.

Expo had issued a request for proposals in July 2011 to lease the land where the racetrack and casino sit. Bidders were given 30 days to submit proposals.

Only The Downs, the longtime operator of the track and casino, and Laguna Development Corp. submitted proposals, and an evaluation committee appointed by Martinez selected the Downs for the lease.

The State Fair Commission initially balked at approving the lease but later did so by a 4-3 vote in November. The Board of Finance, headed by Martinez, gave the final OK in December.

Critics of the leasing process say Expo should have done more to attract other bidders and that the deal has the appearance of possible political payback. Martinez has political ties to some Downs owners and representatives.

Tom Tinnin, a former longtime chairman of the State Fair Commission, resigned a Martinez appointment to the Board of Finance because of objections to the leasing process.

The administration has been consistent in maintaining that the bid process exceeded the requirements of law and that the new lease for the Downs is a square deal for taxpayers.

Some Martinez critics continue to allege the process was corrupt, but Laguna Development is no longer protesting the new lease for the Downs and construction is under way on the new casino, although behind schedule.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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