“Delete this email,” then-University of New Mexico Athletic Director Paul Krebs wrote on May 11 to a pair of staff members.
One of the staffers, senior associate athletic director Kaley Espindola, had sent Krebs a preview of an announcement UNM planned to issue when it revealed the next day that it was restoring its ski team.
Krebs responded with concern that an independent journalist who runs a watchdog website would get it sooner.
He went on to email Espindola: “Suggest you delete all texts and any emails related to reinstatement skiing (sic). Delete this email.”
A day prior, Krebs had given Espindola similar instructions after each was copied on a new public records request submitted to UNM. He cited an email his assistant had recently written, one he did not think the request required turning over. He wanted that email purged.
“If not (covered by the request), she needs to delete it and delete from delete file and send file,” Krebs wrote Espindola.
Public and media scrutiny of the university has soared in recent years, especially regarding its athletic department. That has meant a sharp increase in the number of requests under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.
Krebs did not respond to a request for comment on his May emails, which the Journal recently obtained in response to an IPRA request. Krebs retired in June.
Interim UNM President Chaouki Abdallah said he knew nothing about the messages. He said he preaches transparency and contends that most at UNM are not trying to subvert public records law, and that at times the university has been “overwhelmed” by the number of requests.
“I keep telling people, ‘If you don’t want it out, don’t do it, don’t say it,’ ” he said.
Krebs’ emails “should raise flags,” said Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
“No one should be afraid to have it sunny and clear and bright in their office,” St. Cyr said. “When we shine the light, it’s because we are taxpayers and we want to know the government is efficient. And if it’s not, we’re going to hold them accountable.”
Big increase in requests
The state’s largest university received 531 IPRA requests through Oct. 20 – up from 387 in all of 2016. At this pace, it will see about 657 this year, a 70 percent increase from last year and more than 2½ times the volume of 2015.
UNM, with its annual budget of nearly $3 billion, has one records custodian, John Rodriguez. He manages the online records portal and disburses requests to the appropriate individuals and departments for fulfillment.
Kimberly Bell, senior deputy university counsel, also works on IPRAs, looking over documents that require an attorney’s review before release. While IPRA workload varies, she estimates that it has lately consumed up to half her time.
Daniel Libit, who runs the NMFish bowl website dedicated to watchdogging the Lobos, alone submitted about 140 records requests for the first 10 months of this year. He said revelations wrought through his and others’ record-driven reporting could benefit the school and UNM should have more staff finding and releasing records in the name of public interest and the school’s bottom line.
“You want more eyeballs on this stuff,” Libit said. “This is healthier for the university, it’s healthier for the university’s finances to do that.”
So far this year, UNM athletics has acknowledged using public money to pay nearly $25,000 in donor expenses on a 2015 fundraising golf trip to Scotland and also that it has failed to collect about $400,000 from people who rented suites in the Pit.
Both state Auditor Tim Keller and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas have launched investigations into the department. Balderas cited UNM’s response to Journal email requests regarding the Scotland trip when he launched his investigation.
UNM has devoted more administrative help for the paperwork side of the process, Bell said. But she said it’s unlikely, in the current budget climate, that UNM will provide more staffing, especially since IPRA volume is not always so high.
Bell said UNM is doing “quite well” meeting its IPRA responsibilities, though Abdallah described the institution as overwhelmed by the volume.
“It is grinding on both the legal office that has to review some of these things and the other offices,” he said. “It’s the law and we follow the law; we try to do the best we can, and we come up short, I think, because there’s no way to be able to respond to every single thing in a timely fashion and don’t make any mistakes without just dumping a lot of stuff out there.”
St. Cyr said New Mexico law makes providing public information a priority, deeming it “an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officers and employees.”
Libit, who has two pending lawsuits against the school, said the process leaves the information-seeking public too much at UNM’s mercy. “The institution is driving a Hummer and the requester is driving a bicycle in a game of IPRA chicken,” he said.
Delays and concealments
Public entities have up to 15 days to provide applicable records. UNM failed to meet that deadline on three recent Journal requests.
UNM, earlier this year, heavily redacted records it gave the Journal detailing its expenses for the Scotland golf junket, concealing portions that showed the university paid for private donors. Weeks later, after the Journal continued to inquire, the university turned over more complete documents.
In response to a request for all spending records for the UNM Board of Regents’ suite at the Pit since 2010, the Journal received 59 pages of documents. They included receipts for popcorn, nachos, bottled water, Bud Light and other refreshments ordered for the regents’ suite during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 basketball seasons. They totaled $12,403.
But the university had not included receipts showing UNM had also paid $30,000 for the regents’ suite rental each of the past two years. UNM corrected the oversight after the Journal inquired specifically about the rental fees.
Libit said that he has never received documents before 15 days and that UNM was also delinquent on three of his recent IPRAs. He also expressed concern about the integrity of UNM’s process. The university often leaves it up to the subject of the inquiry to turn over the relevant documents, like emails, presenting an opportunity to withhold embarrassing or incriminating material.
Bell and Rodriguez have offered training to several UNM departments to explain IPRA’s requirements.
Bell said she believes employees are forthcoming. “If I had a suspicion or concern that someone is not being forthcoming, I would raise that without question,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s happening.”