SANTA FE, N.M. — In politics, as it’s often been said, perception can trump reality.
If voters perceive a politician did something wrong, the reality, or truth, sometimes doesn’t matter.
That is why the stakes are high in the controversy over how the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez issued a new lease to The Downs at Albuquerque for the racetrack and casino at the state fairgrounds.
You could make a good argument that the Republican administration’s process of issuing the lease was politically tone-deaf, rushed, clumsy and poorly managed, but Democrats have been trying to make a case to voters that there was something more sinister at work, like pay-to-play, bid-rigging and bribery. They call it the “dirty Downs deal.”
In Santa Fe today, the Democratic-controlled Senate Rules Committee was scheduled to hold an “informational briefing” for its members on the Downs lease and other issues related to management of the State Fair and the fairgrounds.
The State Fair Commission met in January for the first time in a year, and audits in recent years have raised questions about the financial management of Expo New Mexico, the formal name for the fairgrounds and the agency that manages it under the supervision of the commission. Some major financial problems predate Martinez becoming governor on Jan. 1, 2011.
The Rules Committee briefing is to be followed by a confirmation hearing at a later date for three Martinez appointees to the State Fair Commission, including Larry Kennedy, the commission’s chairman.
Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez of Albuquerque – who happens to be seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Martinez – said both Democrats and Republicans on the committee have raised concerns related to the State Fair Commission.
“The Legislature has the duty, regardless of the party, to address these issues,” she said. “It’s not that I’m picking on the governor.”
Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said Lopez is staging a “petty political sideshow.”
The governor, Martinez political adviser Jay McCleskey and Expo New Mexico general manager Dan Mourning were invited to appear before the Rules Committee, but Knell said they will not do so.
Scheduled to appear at the hearing were representatives of the State Auditor’s Office and two outspoken critics of the new Downs lease and the process that led to it: former State Fair Commissioner Charlotte Rode and former state Board of Finance member Tom Tinnin, who were both appointed to those positions by Martinez.
The administration has consistently maintained that it went beyond the requirements of state law in seeking the lease proposals for the track and casino property at the fairgrounds and that the Downs proposal was the best deal for taxpayers.
The FBI has looked into the contract and procurement process, but there have been no charges or other formal allegations of wrongdoing or any grand jury action or subpoenas.
Here’s a recap of major events leading up to the signing of the Downs lease:
• In late 2010, in the final months of the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, the administration and The Downs negotiated a proposal to extend the Downs lease for the track and casino for up to 40 years. Two Richardson appointees on the State Fair Commission objected, and the proposal died.
• The Martinez administration, which took office in January 2011, announced in June 2011 that Mourning had agreed to extend the Downs lease for one year, until January 2013.
The administration said it would ask the Legislature to approve the extension when it met in September 2011 for a special session chiefly devoted to drawing new boundaries for elective offices.
• In July 2011, the administration shifted gears, issuing a request for proposals to lease 93 acres of Expo New Mexico for 25 years, including the track and casino properties. Those interested in the lease were given 30 days to make proposals, a time period that exceeded procurement law requirements but which drew significant criticism.
• Only The Downs and Laguna Development Corp., a business arm of Laguna Pueblo, submitted proposals, both proposing new casinos.
• In September 2011, an evaluation committee selected the Downs proposal, and final lease negotiations between the administration and The Downs began. Mourning said he selected and appointed the committee members after consulting with the Governor’s Office to ensure they had no conflicts of interest.
• Two State Fair commissioners complained in October 2011 that the process for seeking competitive proposals was rushed, that fair commissioners weren’t given the opportunity to review the proposals prior to the winner being selected and that final lease negotiations were being conducted without their input.
• Prior political contributions by two of the Downs owners to Martinez political committees and numerous other political ties between Downs representatives and the governor gave critics of the deal further ammunition to question it. A third Downs owner was a major Richardson financial backer.
• The State Fair Commission was scheduled to vote Nov. 9, 2011, on the Downs lease, but the vote was postponed after a majority of commissioners, including Kenneth “Buster” Goff of Hobbs, indicated they would vote against it.
Later that day, McCleskey, political adviser to the governor, sent a text to Andrea Goff – daughter-in-law of the commissioner and a fundraiser for the governor’s political action committee at that time – saying, “Buster screwed us.”
McCleskey said in recent interview that he was concerned about the financial fallout for the State Fair if the lease wasn’t approved and that his support for a lease negotiated and advocated for by the administration wasn’t surprising.
• At a meeting of the State Fair Commission later in November 2011, Kenneth Goff joined with three other commissioners to approve the Downs lease on a 4-3 vote. The Board of Finance, chaired by Martinez, gave final approval the next month after board members requested changes and additions to make the deal tougher. The Downs opened its new casino last summer.
• In January 2013, Griego Professional Services, a Santa Fe firm hired by Expo New Mexico to conduct its 2012 audit and approved for the job by the state Auditor’s Office, advised the auditor that the process used by the administration to seek lease proposals “was in accordance with state law and procurement regulations.”
However, the 2012 audit, which was publicly released a year later, cited some shortcomings in the process.
The audit said the 30 days that Expo New Mexico gave for submittal of lease proposals met the legal requirement but that it appeared more time should have been provided given the complexity of the proposals.
The audit also said the evaluation committee for the proposals wasn’t appointed prior to the due date of proposals, as required by state regulations.
On issues unrelated to the lease, the Griego firm found Expo New Mexico had spent money beyond its budgetary authority and that there was a lack of supporting documents for some transactions.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.