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Legislator Questions Legality of Cruces-Area Lease

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
    LAS CRUCES— State Rep. Nathan Cote has asked the Attorney General's Office about the legality of a commercial lease signed by the State Land Office with developer Philip Philippou to master-plan state trust land on the East Mesa.
    Public Lands Commissioner Patrick Lyons did not return calls seeking comment or respond to a fax of Cote's letter to Attorney General Gary King.
    Assistant Land Commissioner Jerry King said he would leave legal analysis to the attorney general but added, "We conduct our business fairly. ... I feel we've done everything correctly."
    Cote, D-Las Cruces, also asked King to examine whether Lyons' acceptance in 2006 of nearly $20,000 in campaign contributions from a political action committee largely funded by Philippou, the Blue and Red PAC, violated the Governmental Conduct Act.
    ''The appearance of undue influence in the commissioner's award of the business lease (to Philippou's Solo Investments) is troubling to me,'' Cote wrote in a May 9 letter to King, copied to State Auditor Hector Balderas.
    Philippou, through an attorney, declined to answer questions from the Journal regarding his dealings with the State Land Office.
    Lyons has said he did not know who donated funds to the Blue and Red PAC, and the men who ran the PAC have said Philippou did not direct them to give funds to any particular campaign.
    Philippou signed a potentially lucrative business lease with Lyons on Dec. 26 to provide master-planning services for a 4,200-acre stretch of state trust land on the East Mesa outside Las Cruces. The deal also calls for Philippou to shepherd annexation of that land into Las Cruces city limits— a proposition that could accommodate a doubling of the city's current population of about 80,000.
    Philippou's business lease was signed at the same time the State Land Office was advertising a Feb. 1 deadline for proposals to provide planning services on state trust land in the same area.
    Cote asked the attorney general to review whether Lyons violated state law ''by failing to comply with the publicly advertised competitive bid process for the lease of the subject state lands.''

E-MAIL writer Rene Romo