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University Presidents Council hires ex-UNM lobbyist with 3 DWI arrests

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Former University of New Mexico top lobbyist Marc Saavedra, who left one UNM position and backed out of another amid controversy over DWI issues, has been hired as executive director of the New Mexico Council of University Presidents.

Marc Saavedra

SAAVEDRA: Son of a former state legislator

The son of a former longtime state legislator, Saavedra beat out two other finalists to land the $115,000-a-year job for the organization, which counts six of the state’s seven universities as members. The University of New Mexico withdrew from the organization earlier this year.

Saavedra’s start date for the job is July 1.

Saavedra resigned from his high-profile job as UNM’s government affairs director in 2014 after being arrested and charged with his third DWI, and he pulled the plug on a $50,000 consulting contract with UNM Health Sciences Center last summer after it drew criticism from some community members and scrutiny from the UNM Board of Regents.

At the time, he was still on probation for his most recent DWI case. Court records show he wrapped up probation last fall, having met all obligations.

In an interview Thursday, Saavedra said he was approached regarding the vacant executive director position and believes it will be a good fit.

“I’m really moving forward with my life and not looking back,” Saavedra told the Journal. “I feel like I’m in a great place.”

Joseph Shepard, president of Western New Mexico University and vice chairman of the Council of University Presidents, said Thursday that the council was aware of Saavedra’s drunken driving record when it decided to hire him as executive director.

New Mexico State University President Garrey Carruthers, chairman of the Council of University Presidents, was traveling out of state and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Shepard said the organization recognizes Saavedra’s “personal background has not been exemplary, but his professional background has been.”

“We looked at that, and we felt everyone deserves another chance,” he added. “We think (Saavedra) is solid. Out of all the candidates, he had by far the most policy and technical experience.”

He also said that Saavedra’s one-year contract will be evaluated next year and that any additional run-ins with the law on Saavedra’s part will not be tolerated.

“If he slips back into the behaviors of the past, we’ll get rid of him,” Shepard said.

The two other finalists were Paul Aguilar, a deputy Cabinet secretary in the Public Education Department, and Vicente Vargas, state director in New Mexico State University’s Office of Government Relations.

As executive director of the Council of University Presidents, Saavedra will be in charge of working with state agencies, testifying on legislation at the Roundhouse and advising university presidents on funding-related issues, according to a formal job description.

He was hired to fill a vacancy created when longtime council Executive Director David Lepre retired recently. Saavedra’s salary will actually be less than his predecessor’s – Lepre had been making $179,000 per year – and will likely come from a mix of public funds and university endowment dollars, Shepard said.

Saavedra is the son of former Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, an Albuquerque Democrat who served in the Legislature from 1977 through 2014 and served as chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

During Marc Saavedra’s tenure as director of UNM’s office of Community and Government Affairs, he signed a “Last Chance Agreement” with the university after his second DWI arrest in 2006. He then resigned after being arrested on another DWI charge in July 2014.

Saavedra also faced a criminal summons for a separate 2014 incident, after he reportedly failed to pay about $28 for a taxi ride and fled the scene. Charges were later dismissed in that case.

Previously, Saavedra had worked as a court administrator for Bernalillo County Metro Court and as a budget analyst for the Albuquerque-based 2nd Judicial District.

UNM and the council

Meanwhile, the decision to hire Saavedra as the Council of University Presidents’ director comes after UNM’s withdrawal from the group this spring.

UNM spokeswoman Dianne Anderson said that the university will continue to collaborate with the council and New Mexico’s other universities, but that the decision to withdraw was prompted by an ongoing budget crunch. Each university pays a fee to be a member.

“While we have had a productive and collegial experience over the years as part of this organization, UNM is currently trying to cut costs in every possible manner and is scrutinizing all expenses and external funding commitments,” Anderson said in an email Thursday.

Despite his past ties with UNM, Saavedra said he doesn’t believe the university’s decision to back out from the Council of University Presidents will make for an awkward situation.

“I hope to work with UNM, and I hope they will work with the (other) university presidents,” he said.

Saavedra cited state budget belt-tightening and the solvency of the legislative lottery scholarship program – set to lose a temporary funding infusion next year – as likely priorities in his new position.