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Lawmaker/Coach Calls the Shots for UNM Rugby

By Colleen Heild
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Investigative Reporter
    Scholarships. Travel expenses. Public relations experts. A former professional from Wales brought in on a sole-source contract to help coach.
    The quest for success hasn't come cheap for University of New Mexico rugby and its politically connected coach, who appears to have free reign over the program even though he isn't a university employee.
    Sen. Shannon Robinson, D-Albuquerque, is the unpaid volunteer coach who also prides himself on being one of UNM's patron saints when it comes to legislative appropriations.
    When it comes to the men and women's teams, the Albuquerque lawyer doles out scholarships, retains consultants and hired a coaching assistant with an international background. All for a club sport that operates outside the purview of the UNM Athletics Department.
    The price tag over the past three years: more than $450,000.
    Money from student fees, a UNM soft drink contract and other university funds have been paying the rugby bills. But, come July 1, a special legislative appropriation will pay the lion's share of the tab for 2008-09— to the tune of $150,000. UNM student services will chip in another $10,000.
    That puts rugby's $160,000-plus budget for 2008-2009 at nearly 15 times what the No. 2 club sport recipient, the Ice Wolves hockey team, received this year.
    Asked how Robinson has managed to get more and more money for the program over the years, UNM Executive Vice President David Harris originally agreed to be interviewed, then designated a university spokeswoman to respond.
    Her answer: "Rugby has benefited hundreds of students over more than a dozen years at the university and has given our students an opportunity to participate in this nontraditional sport at a very high competitive level."
    There's no denying that rugby has a higher profile and competitive standing than UNM's other 15 club sports, which range from Chinese student soccer to ultimate Frisbee.
    And UNM rugby has been a recent winner on the national field: The men reached the Sweet 16, and the women made it to the Final Four last year.
    A Journal review of financial and other records reflecting rugby team expenditures from 2005 through 2007 shows:
   
  • Robinson, who has coached the teams for years, brought in a former professional rugby player whose firm has earned more than $57,500 since 2005. The firm's principal address has been listed as Robinson's law office. Robinson has been the firm's registered agent.
       
  • More than $270,000 has been spent on scholarships and tuition for rugby players. UNM officials interviewed say they know of no written criteria governing eligibility for the scholarships, which they say are awarded at Robinson's discretion and not by the UNM scholarship office.
       
  • About $16,500 went for tuition, fees and room and board for international rugby students, some who attended UNM's Center for English Language and American Culture.
       
  • Typically, individuals participate in club sports at their own risk. But UNM has paid about $20,804 for health insurance for rugby players.
       
  • In 2005, an advertising consultant was retained to help draw crowds to be filmed for a rugby team video. Last year, rugby funds paid for $600 worth of testing to determine if a rugby player had a learning disability.
       
  • Robinson, who is running for re-election, used campaign funds raised for his state Senate campaign to pay the USA Rugby association on behalf of one of his players in 2005. Such funds for the most part are supposed to be used for campaign-related expenses.
       
  • UNM officials said they knew of no other university club sports programs that offer players scholarships, health insurance and professional paid coaching. Last year, annual budgets for club sports other than rugby ranged from $406 for the racquetball club to $11,565 for Ice Wolves men's ice hockey.
        Robinson, a state senator from District 17 since 1989, did not return repeated requests for an interview left at his home and Albuquerque law office.
        As chair of the Senate's Corporations and Transportation committee, Robinson was honored last year by the UNM Alumni Association for his "extraordinary contributions" to UNM.
        Since 2005, according to his campaign Web site, Robinson "brought home" more than $2.7 million in capital outlay projects for UNM— with about 64 percent of the money pertaining to athletics.
       
    'Special project'
        UNM rugby made only sports headlines until the release of an audit earlier this year put the focus on how program was funded.
        Auditors with the Legislative Finance Committee found that legislative appropriations intended for a UNM think tank, the Center for Regional Studies, had paid for rugby team travel and financial aid.
        UNM officials said that about $17,000 was transferred from the think tank budget.
        In addition, a recent Journal review of the expenses incurred by the Center for Regional Studies shows that four students from the women's rugby team in 2006 received a total of $4,856 in student tuition fees that year.
        Robinson, in a Journal interview in January, said he asked the center's director last year to also help pay for about $30,000 for team travel to playoff games.
        After the LFC deemed such expenditures "inappropriate" and contrary to the mission of the Regional Studies center, the Legislature this year approved an amendment to the state 2008-2009 budget bill to fund UNM rugby as a special project.
        It wasn't clear from legislative records who sponsored the amendment. In the past, there had been no direct appropriations to the team.
        UNM officials have said they didn't ask the Legislature for the rugby appropriation.
        It comes at a time when UNM academic departments have been asked to freeze carryover funds to balance next year's budget and UNM research office has faced a deficit.
        No faculty adviser oversees the rugby clubs, and it appears that Robinson wields considerable authority over the program— even entering into contracts with vendors on behalf of the university.
        Debbie Morris, director of student activities, signed off on many of the rugby club expenditures examined by the Journal. She said in an interview she ensured Robinson adhered to spending guidelines.
        UNM spokeswoman Susan McKinsey said there will be additional oversight now that the state has funded UNM rugby as a "special project."
       
    'Campaign worker'
        Robinson has been coach of the UNM men's rugby team since 1991. The women's team has been playing for eight years.
        "It amazes me that one person can have that kind of passion for an entire program," said Ashley Smith, a freshman rugby player at UNM. "He really is out there to see the program succeed and to see his players succeed."
        To that end, Ian Jones, a retired professional rugby player from Wales was hired under a sole-source contract, according to UNM records.
        Jones was hired under the vendor name of IDL Inc., which New Mexico corporation records show was incorporated in 2001.
        The corporation's purpose, according to records, was "professional sports development."
        Robinson was listed as the registered agent. The only officer listed was Jones.
        Its principal address is listed as 6743 Academy Road NE, Suite A, in Albuquerque. That's Robinson's law office.
        A secretary there last week said Jones didn't have an office in the building, but received mail at the address.
        "IDL, Inc. provides unique sports coaching knowledge about rugby that is unknown and unattainable by American coaches," states a sole-source contract request obtained by the Journal.
        The document isn't signed and doesn't show who submitted it.
        "He is the Vince Lombardi of American Rugby Coaches. There is no one in the United States that has the rugby coaching knowledge of Ian Jones or IDL, Inc.," according to the request.
        From February 2005 to November of last year, UNM paid IDL Inc. $57,500. Robinson signed IDL up for another four-month contract this year at $12,500.
        As a state senator, Robinson has also paid Ian Jones or IDL Inc. a total of $3,250 in campaign expenditures, according to reports. IDL was listed as performing services that included "advertising consultant," "campaign worker" and "sign patrol."
        Jones couldn't be reached for comment.
        Robinson's campaign finance reports also show an expenditure of $600 to USA Rugby in 2005. Under the stated purpose was the name of one of Robinson's players.
        State law restricts campaign expenditures to campaign costs; performance of legislative duties; donations to certain charities or the state general fund; refunds to donors; and to political parties or candidates.
        The Web site of USA Rugby, the governing organization for college rugby, lists only 10 universities or colleges as offering partial scholarships or tuition waivers to club players. Many are funded by alumni organizations.
        UNM wasn't listed.
        Student tuition and scholarships for UNM rugby players has crept up from $78,550 a year in 2005 to $96,830 for the fiscal year ending in June 2007.
        Most scholarships at UNM go through the university scholarship office. Not most rugby scholarships.
        Alex Gonzalez, associate director of the scholarship office, said he has never seen any criteria as to how the scholarships are awarded.
        Gonzalez said his office administers the money rugby receives from student affairs, adding, "I just do whatever the coach asks me."
        Asked about the criteria in awarding scholarships, McKinsey said in an e-mail, "This is best answered by Coach Robinson as he has determined the parameters for the awarding of these scholarships."
        The rugby Web site said scholarships are awarded on a "case-by-case basis to the starting 15 and other outstanding players."
        UNM officials say at least 95 rugby scholarships have been awarded since the 2005-2006 school year, most of them partial.
        Four rugby players since 2005 have received scholarships to attend the Center for English Language and American Culture— which teaches college-level English skills. Four international students also received room and board.
        Invoices show rugby players have their uniforms and equipment provided and most travel expenses are paid for them.
        The Journal review also showed that UNM paid $630 for a "complete psychoeducational evaluation for member of women's rugby team" in 2007.
        That included, an "intelligence measure, achievement in reading, math and written language, cognitive processing, and supplemental reading and spelling measures."
        A UNM official recalled that "they were trying to determine if she had a disability" to qualify her for UNM services.
        Asked whether that expenditure was appropriate, McKinsey said in an e-mail, "There is no policy prohibiting this expenditure of funds."
        Another invoice showed that Janice Morrow, a public relations consultant, charged the rugby team $814 in February 2005 for her services.
        The women's rugby team was "doing some production, some videos to replay on the sports stations," she recalled in a phone interview. "We did PR to get people to the games so there would be people in the stands for the video."