Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The former owner of WisePies Pizza & Salad accused the University of New Mexico’s fundraising agency of secrecy and challenged other UNM athletic facility sponsors to turn over records as he on Tuesday showed proof of payment for a now-defunct naming rights deal at the Pit.
Steve Chavez’s release includes scanned copies of three checks totalling $700,000 and a bank ledger showing another $100,000 payment; they reflect all payments made during the naming rights deal forged in 2014. The agreement was originally intended to reach $5 million and span 10 years but terminated in 2017 when Dreamstlyle Remodeling stepped in with a larger pledge.
In his written statement, Chavez called the release “an act of good faith in the interest of transparency,” adding that it comes “after enduring years of undeserved scrutiny.”
His statement comes more than a year after the deal ended and months after he sold WisePies — but just weeks after a court ruling in journalist Daniel Libit’s lawsuit against the University of New Mexico Foundation, the private entity that handles UNM fundraising and signed the WisePies agreement. Libit sued the foundation for not turning over records pertaining to the WisePies agreement — records that included proof of payment. The foundation argued that it’s a private entity not bound by the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, but State District Court Judge Nancy Franchini ruled in late-May that its work on behalf of the public institution means its records are subject to IPRA.
A foundation spokeswoman said last week that the foundation had not yet determined whether it would appeal.
The ruling factored into this week’s release, Chavez spokesman Tom Garrity said in a written response to Journal questions.
“However, some media stories alluding to ‘hidden WisePies documents’ was the final straw,” Garrity said. “WisePies has respected UNM Foundation’s right to privacy, even though it has been at Mr. Chavez’s expense. The potential of the UNM Foundation drawing out this issue further prompted Mr. Chavez to end speculation about the payments once and for all.”
Garrity said Chavez did not communicate with the UNMF about this week’s release.
WisePies and the foundation have long maintained that WisePies was current on payments, though records show the final $300,000 check — part of a $600,000 payment owed by Dec. 31, 2016 — was not dated until Jan. 27, 2017. A WisePies spokeswoman told the Journal on Dec. 29, 2016, that it had made the payment, and UNM’s then-Athletic Director Paul Krebs told the Journal he was scheduled to pick up the check the same day.
Chavez’s statement said that check was erroneously written to UNM Athletics instead of the foundation and not returned and rewritten until UNM administrators returned from winter break. Previous WisePies checks had been correctly written to the UNM Foundation, but Garrity blamed the final check’s inaccuracy on “a simple error in the accounting department.”
Libit called Chavez’s release “incredible and yet utterly predictable,” and said the explanation for the tardy $300,000 payment “strains credulity.”
“I support his newfound call for increased transparency when it comes to UNM’s naming-rights deals and sponsorship partners. This, however, shouldn’t be the responsibility of UNM donors and private companies,” Libit said in a written statement. “It is the responsibility of the university and the UNM Foundation, as Judge Franchini ruled earlier this month. Soon, we’ll see how sincerely UNM cares about its duties to the public.”
Chavez’s statement referenced his own problems with the foundation.
“Like many of you, I’ve found the UNM Foundation to be secretive and a very quiet entity choosing not to communicate with me at all, only reaching out to invite me to more donor events,” he wrote.
A foundation spokeswoman did not respond by the Journal’s deadline.
Questions surrounded the WisePies agreement from its inception. Repeated tax liens against the company only heightened suspicion, though Chavez eventually took sole control of the company and said he reconciled the tax debt. (The released checks show Chavez made one Pit payment from another of his companies.)
But Chavez on Tuesday wondered why the public had not similarly scrutinized the $1.5 million naming rights deal for Branch Field (football) and $1 million sponsorship at Santa Ana Star Field (baseball), calling on “other sponsors and major donors to provide copies of their agreements and proof of payments” in the name of transparency.
While UNM released the WisePies agreement the day it was signed, it has declined a 2016 Journal request for a copy of the Branch agreement, citing donor privacy.
Margaret Branch did not immediately respond to a Journal message, while a Santa Ana Star Casino official said late Wednesday afternoon that the person authorized to speak about the baseball field deal was not available.
Larry Chavez of Dreamstyle Remodeling, meanwhile, released his company’s agreement to the Journal over the objections of UNM and the UNM Foundation.