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Change sought in open records bill

The Council of University Presidents, which supports New Mexico’s major public universities, does not oppose a bill requiring the University of New Mexico Foundation and similar fundraising groups to operate openly and comply with the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

However, the council is in the process of drafting language to hopefully amend the bill by providing exceptions for anonymous donors who want to keep their identities private, said council executive director Marc Saavedra.

House Bill 29 is sponsored by Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Albuquerque, and has the support of New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, who is asking state lawmakers to adopt the legislation. That legislation currently does not provide these exceptions.

“We understand where the attorney general is coming from in terms of transparency and the public’s right to know, but we do have some concerns because there are donors who want to remain anonymous, and they’re not receiving a benefit based on their donations,” Saavedra said. Those donors “tend to be very specific” about their privacy and the terms of their donations, he said.

The council is soliciting feedback from its members and once there is agreement on the wording of the exception, Saavedra said he will request a meeting with Balderas to determine if the exception as drafted is acceptable for possibly amending House Bill 29.

The Council of University Presidents represents its university members in shared goals and visions for student success, economic development, research and public service.

Marc Saavedra, executive director of the Council of University Presidents

Marc Saavedra, executive director of the Council of University Presidents

Members include the presidents or chancellors of UNM, Western New Mexico University, Eastern New Mexico University, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University and Northern New Mexico College.

The introduction of House Bill 29 comes as former UNM athletic director Paul Krebs faces charges of fraud, money laundering, evidence tampering, criminal solicitation and making or permitting false public voucher.

The charges stem from a 2015 athletics department fundraising golf trip to Scotland, organized by Krebs and paid for, in part, with UNM funds. After questions arose about how the golf trip was paid for, Krebs in May of 2017 announced that an “anonymous” donor had contributed $25,000 through the UNM Foundation to cover UNM’s losses. The foundation declined to reveal the source of the donation, but it was later shown that the anonymous donor was Krebs himself.

House Bill 29 also comes after the UNM Foundation initially refused to release documents to independent watchdog Daniel Libit, who subsequently filed a lawsuit under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

A state district judge last May ordered the release of the documents, saying that the foundation acts on behalf of a public entity and is subject to the state records laws. The foundation, however, has appealed the decision, arguing that it is a private organization with a duty to protect donor privacy.

Saavedra on Wednesday said that the council’s members are not taking issue with the need for transparency as cited in House Bill 29, but “anonymous donors should have guidelines for how that works for each foundation.”