ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Effective Jan. 2, Otero County Commission Chairman Ronny Rardin began work for the office of newly elected state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn under a short-term $7,500-a-month contract.
Six days later, Rardin tried – but failed – to give Dunn’s son Blair more of the county’s legal work.
Aubrey and Blair Dunn and Rardin say there was no understanding that Rardin, in exchange for the Land Office contract, would attempt to steer more legal work to Blair Dunn.
“Absolutely no, a stack of Bibles,” Rardin, a builder and pastor from Alamogordo, said in an interview Friday. He added there was nothing illegal or unethical about his actions.
Aubrey Dunn said Rardin, a friend from childhood, did volunteer work on his campaign and was brought in along with four others to help temporarily run the Land Office after Dunn took office Jan 1.
Blair Dunn has been a contract attorney for Otero County since 2012, working on public lands and other issues.
Rardin proposed at a Jan. 8 County Commission meeting that longtime County Attorney Dan Bryant be fired and that Blair Dunn be assigned Bryant’s duties until June, when the county would seek competitive proposals for the legal services.
Rardin said at the meeting that he had made it known to other commissioners over the past two years that he wasn’t happy with Bryant’s work. “I have to trust my legal counsel. I don’t feel I have that trust” he said.
Rardin’s proposal died when the other two commissioners declined to support it.
Rardin didn’t publicly disclose during the meeting that he was under contract with the Land Office.
“I think it was pretty much known,” he said in the interview Friday. “The people in my district knew I was working up there.”
Blair Dunn said his firm billed the county for about $40,000 in legal services during 2014. Being assigned the duties of the county attorney would have added about $10,000 a month to the billings, he said.
Two Otero County residents – William Wheatley of Tularosa and his sister Susan Wheatley of High Rolls – last month asked state Attorney General Hector Balderas and state Auditor Tim Keller to investigate whether Aubrey Dunn and Rardin violated the Governmental Conduct Act, which prohibits public officers from using their positions to pursue private interests.
Wheatley said a complaint against Blair Dunn also was filed with the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court. The board investigates alleged misconduct by lawyers.
Blair Dunn says politics are at the root of the controversy, with supporters of former Land Commissioner Ray Powell, a Democrat, helping lead the charge.
“They’re out to get Ronny, they don’t like Dad, and I’m right in the middle,” Blair Dunn said.
Aubrey Dunn, a Republican rancher from Lincoln County, narrowly defeated Powell in the November election.
The Land Office issued three-month contracts for Rardin, three former Land Office employees and a campaign worker for Dunn to help manage the agency.
Dunn said he needed the help because he had limited time to make hires prior to taking office Jan. 1 because he wasn’t declared the winner of the land commissioner race until a recount was completed Dec. 17 – nearly six weeks after the election.
“We had such a short window,” Dunn said.
Blair Dunn said that, as legal counsel for his father’s campaign and his father’s transition into the job of land commissioner, he helped draft the contracts for Rardin and the others.
Rardin’s contract called for him to inventory Land Office property, analyze bills in the Legislature, serve as a liaison to other government agencies and perform other work.
Aubrey Dunn said Rardin traveled to the Land Office’s 12 field offices around the state to meet with supervisors. Rardin worked only the month of January for the Land Office, he said.
Two of the three former Land Office employees working under contract for the agency will leave at the end of this month, and the third will stay on as a permanent employee, Aubrey Dunn said. They each have been paid $7,500 a month under the contracts.
The former campaign worker for Aubrey Dunn who was hired under contract left at the end of January. Her contract called for monthly pay of $3,500.
Because the contracts were worth less than $50,000 each, there was no requirement in state regulations that the Land Office seek competitive proposals for the work.
Dunn’s office says hiring the contract labor instead of immediately filling vacant positions has resulted in personnel savings of about $28,000.
“I’m actually a little concerned that we are getting hit when we saved the state money,” the commissioner said.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.