Thursday, July 10, 2008
By Jeff Jones And Mark Smith
Journal Staff Writer
The invitation from Republican Darren White’s congressional campaign offered supporters the chance to have their photo taken with Lobo coach Steve Alford for $1,000.
A cup of punch and maybe a handshake with the top dog of Lobo men’s hoops? Only $250.
Now, University of New Mexico athletics vice president Paul Krebs — who acknowledges he asked Alford to participate in the event — says Alford could be pulled from the lineup as political controversy roils in Lobo Land.
Krebs said he didn’t know the coach would be the main attraction.
Alford told the Journal he agreed to stop by the July 16 event at Krebs’ request, but that doesn’t mean he is endorsing White — or anybody else.
“I wouldn’t know Darren White if he walked in front of me,” Alford said. “It got falsely advertised. I was just stopping by.”
White, meanwhile, says his camp checked the details, including the wording of the invite, with a prominent UNM lobbyist who organized the event.
And he accused his 1st Congressional District opponent Martin Heinrich and Democratic “political bosses” — including Gov. Bill Richardson, whom he said had Alford at a fundraiser of his own — of putting the full-court press on UNM.
“We wanted to ensure every aspect of this met with the university’s approval,” White said. “This was backroom political pressure. It just stinks.”
There are plenty of political heavyweights involved.
The event is hosted by UNM lobbyist Joe Thompson, and two of the sponsors are UNM Regents Don Chalmers and Jack Fortner.
Heinrich and a spokesman for Richardson didn’t return calls, but regents President Jamie Koch — a Democratic party heavyweight who has raised money for Richardson — said the governor applied no pressure.
“Darren knows that’s not true,” Koch said.
Koch said he plans to introduce a resolution at the regents’ meeting next month specifying that regents cannot organize political fundraisers headlined by a UNM employee.
“I just don’t think it looks good. I raise money for the governor, and I’ve never done this,” he said.
White, however, pointed to a 2007 fundraiser for Richardson’s presidential bid organized by Cheryl Willman, the director of the UNM Cancer Research & Treatment Center.
In her invite sent via state e-mail, Willman said Richardson and Koch asked her to host the event and invite fellow UNM health science staffers.
“The hypocrisy in this is staggering,” White said.
Koch said having a UNM employee headlining an event co-hosted by regents gives the appearance pressure could have been applied, though he said he doesn’t believe Fortner and Chalmers did that.
Fortner and Chalmers said they didn’t speak to Alford about the event.
Fortner, a Farmington attorney, said he doesn’t back Koch’s proposal.
“It’s too broad,” he said.
“It might be a bit of an overreaction,” said Chalmers, a prominent Albuquerque-area auto dealer.
‘As long as
Paul tells me to’
Krebs said that while he and Alford have attended past political fundraisers, their attendance is not meant as an endorsement — “it’s in our best interests to be out and about ... and meeting the leaders in the state,” Krebs said.
But he said he plans to seek guidelines to ensure a similar flap doesn’t happen again.
“We’re very high-profile figures, in the largest city of the state, in the shadow of the state capitol,” Krebs said of all UNM coaches. “I would strongly advocate we not publicly endorse political figures, because I think it jeopardizes our programs and it compromises our fan base.”
When asked whether Alford, who makes about $1 million a year, would show up for White’s gathering, Krebs said: “A decision has yet to be made on that.”
When Alford was asked if he planned to show up, he said: “As long as Paul tells me to.”
White campaign spokeswoman Sara Lister said about 1,000 invitations were sent out, and that the campaign had no access to lists of UNM season ticket holders or boosters.
‘Release the hounds’
The Journal reported on the invitations last week, and news of Alford’s involvement prompted chatter on radio and in the Journal’s “Sports Speak Up!”
“I find his fundraising efforts for Darren White troubling,” one reader wrote.
“Last time I checked, it’s a free country,” another chimed back.
Krebs said he had asked Alford to attend the fundraiser but said he didn’t know his coach would be the main draw.
“I was not aware of the pose-for-picture payment ... and I take full responsibility for that,” Krebs said. “I would not have approved (it).”
White provided the Journal with an e-mail exchange between the campaign and Thompson in which the wording of the invitation was discussed and Thompson was asked whether it should be run past Alford.
Thompson wrote back that, “I still have not confirmed with Alford.” But the following day, he fired off an e-mail to the campaign announcing, “Release the hounds ...”
That e-mail included what appears to be an exchange between Thompson and Alford.
“Coach — Joe Thompson here — left message last night. Can you make the 16th @ 6 p.m. ... Hosts are Chalmers, Fortner, (Randy) Briggs, (Tom) Growney. My place. In and out in one hour.”
The response from “SA:”
“That is fine. I get back that day from recruiting so give me more details as time gets closer.”
Thompson was out of the state Wednesday and unavailable for comment.
White said Alford late last year attended a presidential-campaign fundraiser for Richardson and earlier this year took part in a fundraiser for Democratic 2nd Congressional District candidate Harry Teague.
Koch said he was not a co-host of the Richardson fundraiser, and a Teague spokesman said that event didn’t involve photos in exchange for contributions.
White’s response: “A fundraiser is a fundraiser. Whether you’re doing photos or shaking hands, it’s irrelevant.”