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State Engineer Accused of Conflict of Interest

By John Fleck
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    When New Mexico's top water official argued in April for a billion-dollar water project to benefit Navajos who have no running water, he cited a public television documentary in support of his argument.
    "The reality faced by many Navajo families today and the benefits of the settlement agreement were highlighted in a recent PBS documentary, 'The Water Haulers,' and many New Mexicans were shocked to realize the primitive conditions some of their neighbors are faced with," state engineer John D'Antonio wrote in an April 8 opinion piece published in the Albuquerque Journal.
    What D'Antonio didn't say was that his agency helped pay for the documentary.
    "How convenient," said Steve Cone, an opponent of the water project who has been critical of the state engineer's involvement.
    KNME, an Albuquerque-based public television station owned jointly by the University of New Mexico and Albuquerque Public Schools, initiated the project, station officials said in a prepared statement.
    The Office of the State Engineer and the Navajo Nation each contributed $15,000 to pay the production's $30,000 cost.
    The state contribution came from a grant the agency received from the nonprofit Healey Foundation in support of the water project, according to Karin Stangl, spokeswoman for the Office of the State Engineer.
    The documentary highlights the plight of the Navajo "water haulers"— residents of the Navajo Nation who haul their water in tanks in the back of their pickup trucks because they have no running water.
    A water deal with New Mexico would apportion water from the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico. The deal would bring some of that water through a billion-dollar pipeline to some Navajo communities in western New Mexico that have never had running water.
    The deal still needs federal approval and funding.
    The project has widespread bipartisan support from New Mexico's political leadership, including D'Antonio.
    But the water deal has drawn opposition from some San Juan River irrigators, and from Cone's group, the Citizens Progressive Alliance.
    Opponents argue the deal allocates too much water to the Navajo Nation.
    Having stakeholders in a political fight funding a documentary about the subject poses problems, according to Bob Gassaway, a retired University of New Mexico journalism professor.
    "The state engineer is a stakeholder in this situation, is trying to seek a certain outcome from it, and is using educational television to help carry the message that he wants to get out to the public to influence the debate and the political decision making over this," Gassaway said in an interview.
    KNME was interested in doing a documentary about the water haulers and approached the Office of the State Engineer and the Navajo Nation for funding, according to the statement.
    All the participants agree that KNME gave the state engineer and the Navajo Nation no control over the film's content.
    "We're real careful about that. That's very important," KNME spokeswoman Joan Rebecchi said.
    The problem with that argument, according to Gassaway, is that the despite the editorial independence, the documentary probably would not have been funded at all if it were going to be critical of the project.
    D'Antonio and Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. appeared in the documentary. None of the project's opponents appeared, and their concerns were not discussed.
    KNME made no secret about the documentary's funding. The show's closing credits say it was funded by the Navajo Nation, the Office of the State Engineer and the Healey Foundation.
    A news release issued by KNME in December also mentioned the funding sources.
    D'Antonio said it never occurred to him he should identify his agency's role in the documentary's production when he cited it in his April 8 opinion piece.
    "Quite frankly, it didn't even cross my mind," he said in an interview.
    D'Antonio said he thought of the documentary as "an educational piece."
    "It wasn't a piece of propaganda," he said.