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UNM lobbyist quits after third DWI

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Marc Saavedra.

Marc Saavedra.

The University of New Mexico lobbyist who last week was arrested and charged with drunk driving for the third time is resigning his high-profile position as UNM’s point man in Santa Fe.

Marc Saavedra, 42, had been under pressure from the university to step down. He has been on administrative leave from UNM since his July 23 arrest. His resignation is effective next Friday.

A brief statement released by the university Friday said that, during a meeting with Saavedra late Thursday, Executive Vice President for Administration David Harris “indicated that it would be best for all parties if Saavedra were to resign, to which Saavedra agreed.”

In the statement, Harris said, “We’d like to thank Marc for his service and we regret the circumstances that led to this decision. We are pleased that he is taking responsibility and the opportunity to deal with the issues that created this situation.”

Saavedra’s annual salary at UNM, where he directed the Office of Government and Community Affairs, is $155,980. He is the son of longtime state Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra.

In a letter to the Journal on Friday, Saavedra apologized to his family, friends and “everyone at UNM for putting the University in a negative light.” He said he knows he has let a lot of people down, including UNM students.

The letter reiterates the themes he voiced in a brief telephone interview on Monday. In that conversation, he said the arrest “could be a good thing in general … an opportunity to do good things with my life.” He said he knows he faces a “tough road ahead, but I will do whatever I can to become a better person.”

Ben Lewinger, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said it’s always a shame when people in public positions are arrested for drunken driving, but added that the publicity heightens awareness and shows it is a problem that can affect anyone.

After his second DWI, Saavedra reached out to MADD to see if there was anything he could do to educate the public about the dangers of drunken driving, Lewinger said. MADD, however, has a policy of not working with offenders at least until after they are sentenced, so nothing ever came of Saavedra’s overture.

“It is disheartening to see local celebrities not take this crime seriously,” Lewinger said. “Three DWIs indicate to me that he has a problem. I hope he gets help.”

University President Bob Frank, who was out of town Friday, told the Journal on Thursday that Saavedra did many good things for UNM for which he received little credit. Frank said he would be “truly sorry” to see Saavedra go, but knew it was time. He said he hopes Saavedra seeks treatment and learns to control his problem.

Harris, on Friday, said Saavedra was remarkably effective in representing UNM in Santa Fe, particularly as it related to funding. “We need someone like Marc on top of that,” Harris said.

“His principal strength was dealing with state government and the state Legislature. Marc was extremely articulate in representing (UNM’s focus on) performance-related issues. He has been invaluable in that regard.” Jamie Koch, a member of the UNM Board of Regents and a former legislator, said Saavedra knows more about state financing and the way the Legislature works “than anybody I know.”

“Marc’s knowledge of budgeting and finance and his relationship with the Senate Finance Committee probably resulted in 30 percent more revenue to UNM,” Koch said. “He understands the process. He has a tremendous relationship with Republicans and Democrats, and it all boils down to relationships. When he’s talking to them, he knows what he’s talking about and they know he is telling them the truth.”

Saavedra, he said, would be difficult to replace.

The university has asked Connie Beimer, a government relations officer, to temporarily handle day-to-day operations in the department.

The regents on Friday requested more information about who would be handling lobbying matters, according to Elsa Kircher Cole, university counsel. She suggested the matter be discussed in closed session during an coming board meeting.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that the DWI arrest is not the only legal problem Saavedra may have to face. A criminal summons was issued in his name in January after he reportedly failed to pay about $28 for a taxi ride and fled the scene. That charge was dismissed in June when an officer failed to appear in court, but the case could be reopened.

According to the criminal summons, the taxi driver said he also picked up a woman with Saavedra – identified as Marsella Duarte – and took them to the Park Avenue SW address where Saavedra lives.

Duarte has not responded to phone messages and emails for comment.

Saavedra’s attorney in the DWI case, Osama Rasheed, said this week that any money his client may have owed the taxi company has been paid.

In the most recent DWI case, an officer pulled Saavedra over at 10:15 p.m. July 23 after he drove through a red light at 14th and Central, according to the criminal complaint.

Saavedra told the officer he had one glass of wine and repeated several times that he was almost home, according to the complaint. He failed a field sobriety test and was arrested. He also failed a blood alcohol test, though the complaint doesn’t say what his blood alcohol level was. The presumed level of intoxication is 0.08 percent.

Saavedra received his first DWI when he was in college. He was arrested again in 2006, shortly after he began working for UNM. He pleaded guilty and signed a “Last Chance Agreement” with the university in which he agreed to undergo treatment, and submit to random drug and alcohol testing. He also pledged not to drink alcohol as long as he was employed by the university.

A subsequent agreement between Saavedra and UNM said a recurrence could result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.

In the 2006 case, Saavedra pleaded guilty and was given a deferred sentence and placed on probation for one year. Although he was initially charged with aggravated DWI, he pleaded guilty to a lesser DWI first-offense. He was ordered, among other things, not to possess or consume alcohol for a year.