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Road Project Would Benefit Major Richardson Contributor

By Barry Massey/
Associated Press
      SANTA FE — A road project sought for a New Mexico real estate venture by a California developer, which was a major donor to Gov. Bill Richardson's re-election, will get $4 million in state financing under legislation heading to the governor.
    The financing will upgrade an interchange on Interstate 25 near Belen, providing access for a planned 6,000-acre real estate project.
    An executive with the developer twice donated the use of his corporate jet to Gov. Bill Richardson during last year's re-election campaign, records show, and the company official also contributed $10,000 to the governor's campaign last year.
    A real estate investment operation behind the massive development donated $75,000 to Richardson's re-election last year.
    In addition to footing the $10,000 bill for governor's two jet trips to California, James Foster, president of Coast Range Investments, also provided his plane for Richardson to travel in his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association.
    The disclosures about the air travel were included in lobbyist filings released in January and reviewed by The Associated Press.
    During the legislative session, the real estate venture sought about $7 million in state financing for a highway interchange upgrade that's necessary for the first phase of the project. On Monday, lawmakers approved some of that funding — a capital improvement bill that allocates $4 million to the state Transportation Department for the interchange. The bill awaits the governor's signature.
    The road project was earmarked for financing by the Richardson administration, according to a project-by-project spreadsheet prepared by the Legislative Council Service.
    The donation of air travel by Foster, of Santa Cruz, Calif., was disclosed in a lobbyist expenditure report with the secretary of state's office in January. The two trips were described as in-kind contributions to Richardson's campaign and valued at $10,000 — $5,000 each.
    Amanda Cooper, the governor's re-election campaign manager who is now working on Richardson's presidential exploratory committee, said political donations don't influence Richardson.
    ''The governor does not make any decisions or is not impacted by any contributions whether that's a money contribution or event or whatever,'' said Cooper.
    Coast Range Investments, formerly operating as RS Investments, is the driving force behind the industrial park and residential development — known as Rancho Cielo — on about nine square miles of land bordering Interstate 25 between Los Lunas and Belen. Over the next two decades, the development expects to become the home to 35,000 people — five times larger than the current population of Belen — and provide a $3.5 billion boost to the state's economy.
    A critical part of the development is access to the interstate — an upgrade to an existing interchange at I-25 in Belen. The road improvement is needed for a commercial and industrial center that's the first phase of the development.
    ''We've been working to piece together some statewide capital outlay for it. We've been working with lawmakers and the governor's office on that, just like everybody else would,'' said J. D. Bullington, a lobbyist for the development's New Mexico operation, N.M. Development Partners.
    The interchange improvement is backed by the city of Belen, which has annexed the land for the planned development, and the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which performs traffic planning analysis for the area.
    The company behind the Belen area development has quickly become a significant political player in the state. A private equity fund, RS Property Fund V, contributed $75,000 to Richardson's re-election. The fund, which pools money by private investors, provides financing for the development company's real estate venture in New Mexico.
    Foster contributed $10,000 to the governor's re-election on Oct. 9 — several days before the last of the airplane donations to the campaign, according to a disclosure report filed last year by the campaign.
    The Democratic Governor's Association, in a report filed with the IRS, reported that Foster provided a $5,000 in-kind contribution for travel. Bullington confirmed that the corporate jet was for Richardson's use.
    Cooper said that Richardson's two trips to California aboard Foster's jet — one in August and another in October — were related to the governor's re-election campaign. However, she couldn't recall Richardson's destination or the purpose of the trips — whether they were for fundraising or for political speeches. Cooper said the campaign's records had been archived and weren't readily accessible.
    Under current state law, there's no restriction on contributions — monetary or in-kind donations of goods or services — to candidates for state offices such as governor.
    There's also limited information disclosed about in-kind contributions. Campaign finance reports, which are filed with the secretary of state's office, require candidates to disclose the value of in-kind contributions as well as the name and occupation of the donor. However, there's no requirement to describe what was donated, such as air travel, food or beverages or free rent of a building.
    ''It continues to be evident we have very weak disclosure laws in New Mexico,'' said Matt Brix, executive director of New Mexico Common Cause, which is supporting measures in the Legislature to cap campaign contributions — including in-kind donations — at $2,300 per election and limit the value of gifts to state officials.


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