Early this year, two holders of grazing leases on New Mexico trust land applied to the State Land Office to have the leases totaling nearly 9,000 acres transferred to a billionaire’s ranch in western New Mexico.
Deputy State Land Commissioner Laura Riley, who is also a licensed real estate appraiser and broker, wrote a $100 check to the State Land Office on an account for Riley & Knight Appraisals and Consulting Services in Corrales to cover the administrative fees for the transfers.
Riley also signed and approved the lease transfers, formally known as assignments, on behalf of her boss, State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn. Riley signed Dunn’s name followed by her initials.
Patrick Killen, assistant land commissioner for policy and special projects, said in an email that Riley “has full signing authority on behalf of Commissioner Dunn” and that she signed the documents “based upon that authority and the sign-off of career staff” at the State Land Office.
State Land Office employees are prohibited by the office’s code of conduct from acting as an agent for the lease of state trust lands. The code of conduct also says, “Under no circumstances shall employees give rise to a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest with the SLO.”
Killen didn’t respond to a question seeking details about the business relationships between Riley and the private parties involved in the lease assignments.
After the Journal asked to inspect records related to the two lease assignments paid for and approved by Riley, Dunn and the SLO’s Office of General Counsel reviewed the matter and found no conflicts with the code of conduct, Killen said.
“Such lease assignments are among the most routine administrative processes that we undertake at the State Land Office” and the transfers paid for and approved by Riley wouldn’t have been handled differently if a “neutral, third-party transaction broker” had been involved, Killen said in an email.
Killen also provided a State Land Office “Certificate Regarding Conflict of Interest,” signed by Riley in April 2015, where she wrote that “she may represent a buyer or seller of a property that includes a leasehold interest in state trust lands.”
However, less than six months after signing that document, Riley told the Journal that, while she continued to work as a real estate appraiser and broker, she wouldn’t accept any private work involving the State Land Office.
Riley made the comment in an interview for a story concerning a decision by the state Board of Real Estate Appraisers. The board in 2012 ordered her to pay a $4,000 fine and more than $7,500 in costs for appraisals that “grossly overstated” the market value of 560 acres of vacant land in Lincoln County. Riley said she didn’t believe she did anything wrong.
Riley is listed online as owner of Riley & Knight Appraisal and Consulting Services, and as a broker for West Wood Realty, specializing in farm and ranch sales, commercial sales and development properties. She represented private parties and herself in deals with the State Land Office prior to being hired by Dunn in 2015.
Riley, who earns about $100,000 a year as deputy land commissioner, declined to be interviewed about the grazing lease transfers, referring the issue to Killen, who requested that questions about the assignments be submitted in writing.
“We can’t help but believe that this effort to question Deputy Commissioner Riley’s service to our state is politically motivated by Commissioner Dunn’s opponents and possibly even sexist in nature, and it serves as a chilling reminder that these kinds of baseless attacks are still a fact of life for many women serving in positions of authority in New Mexico,” Killen wrote in an email.
In January, Kenneth Owens applied to the State Land Office to transfer a grazing lease for 5,507 acres to the D.R. Horton Great Western Ranch. The following month, Double H Holdings applied to transfer a grazing lease for 3,201 acres to the Horton ranch.
D.R. Horton of Fort Worth, the largest home builder in the country and founded by billionaire Donald R. Horton, purchased the 292,779-acre Great Western Ranch in 2014 for near the asking price of $59 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. D.R. Horton is listed by The Land Report publication as one of the nation’s largest land owners.
The check written by Riley to cover the $50 administrative fee for each of the lease assignments to the Horton ranch was written March 25. Riley approved and signed the assignments on behalf of Dunn on April 7.
The State Land Office’s annual fees for the two grazing leases total $6,920.
Dunn announced in April 2015 that he had hired Riley as assistant commissioner for commercial resources. She was named deputy land commissioner when Dunn’s first top aide left after four months in the job.
Before being hired by Dunn, Riley was involved on behalf of herself and other private parties in several transactions with the State Land Office, including commercial development of trust lands and property swaps. She also worked for the SLO in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Deputy Commissioner Riley’s extensive land management experience and work ethic speaks for itself … and she is well respected by government, community and business leaders,” Killen said in an email.