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Gov.'s 'Charity' Got $1.7M; Donors Secret

By Colleen Heild
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Investigative Reporter

          It's a $1.7 million mystery.
        Several people who might be in a position to clear it up say they don't know anything; others aren't talking.
        It all plays out against the backdrop of an ongoing federal pay-to-play investigation that derailed Gov. Bill Richardson's nomination for U.S. commerce secretary.
        The first chapter began in the fall of 2003, when Richardson was collecting money for his Moving America Forward political action committee and starting another related organization called the Moving America Forward Foundation.
        Both were aimed at increasing voter participation among minorities.
        But unlike the higher profile PAC, the foundation mostly operated under the radar. To date, the foundation has never publicly revealed who donated the more than $1.7 million that IRS filings show it raised in the 2004-07 tax years.
        Because the foundation was formed as a "public charity," it is not legally required to publicly disclose individual contributors or say exactly how those tax-deductible contributions were spent.
        The PAC operated under different rules and was required to make detailed public disclosures to the state.
        The foundation's board of directors reads like a Who's Who of Hispanic leaders in Albuquerque and included several Richardson political advisers.
        Two board members didn't return phone calls from the Journal. Three others told the Journal last week they had no real involvement with the organization and didn't know who its donors were.
        Democratic power broker and fundraiser extraordinaire Ed Romero of Albuquerque was listed as foundation board president on IRS 990 filings obtained by the Journal.
        Romero, who served as national finance chairman for the Richardson for President campaign, said last week he didn't have a list of contributors to the foundation.
        "I would not have that," said Romero, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra. "I was sort of a figurehead president. I didn't do anything. I didn't even get any reports."
        Loretta Armenta, president of Qwest New Mexico and longtime community leader, was listed as board secretary in the IRS filings. She told the Journal she doesn't know who contributed.
        "I actually got involved when Governor Richardson (took office) ... the first year and actually have had almost no interaction."
        Armenta said she knew of no board meetings or a Web site for the foundation.
        State corporation records show that Joe Velasquez was one of three directors listed for the foundation when it was formed in October 2003.
        Velasquez, a former deputy director of political affairs for Bill Clinton, is a Reston, Va., consultant and was a senior adviser for Richardson's presidential run.
        IRS forms also list Velasquez as a board member of the foundation, but last week he said he worked solely for the PAC.
        "Foundation???? I had nothing to do with the foundation. I ran the MAF (Moving America Forward) Committee," he wrote in an e-mail.
        IRS filings list a "Brian Colón" as board treasurer. State Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colón didn't return phone calls to inquire whether he was on the board.
        Gilbert Gallegos, spokesman for Richardson, said last week that his office had no information about foundation contributors.
        The one person they said would know? She isn't talking.
        "I can't comment on that," said Amanda Cooper, when asked about the foundation and its contributors last week.
        Cooper, who was deputy campaign manager during Richardson's run for the Democratic presidential nomination, was listed as a paid board consultant on the foundation's IRS filings.
        She was also the executive director of Moving America Forward PAC, and for another political committee called Si Se Puede, which was created to help defray Richardson staff expenses at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Cooper also served as campaign manager for Richardson's re-election as governor in 2006 and was touted as having led the effort to raise $28 million for the Democratic Governors Association when Richardson chaired the association from 2005-06.
        Contributions to the Si Se Puede and Moving American Forward PACs have come under the scrutiny of a federal grand jury looking into "pay to play" allegations involving a California-based financial firm that received two lucrative state contracts in 2004.
        State campaign finance records show the president of CDR Financial Products of Beverly Hills contributed $25,000 to the Moving America Forward political action committee in October 2003. IRS records show that the company gave $75,000 to Si Se Puede in June 2004.
        Around the same time, the company won two contracts to advise the state on the purchase of interest rate swaps and to provide escrow services for Richardson's $1.6 billion transportation program called GRIP, or Governor Richardson's Investment Partnership.
        Other firms or individuals that worked on the GRIP financing package contributed at least $95,000 to the two PACs. The two political action committees raised more than $2.7 million before they were disbanded in 2005.
        Several of Richardson's former advisers, including former chief of staff Dave Contarino, have been under scrutiny in the FBI investigation.
        Contarino, who owns a Santa Fe title company, Richardson and CDR officials have denied any wrongdoing.
        Earlier this month, Richardson cited the grand jury investigation when withdrawing as the U.S. commerce secretary nominee in the Obama administration.
        Purpose of the PAC
        According to news reports at the time, the focus of the Moving America Forward PAC was to register voters in New Mexico, Colorado and Florida. It also donated to New Mexico Democratic legislative candidates.
        IRS filings show that the Moving America Forward Foundation's stated purpose was "nonpartisan voter registration" and leadership training for Latinos, Hispanics and Native Americans.
        The goal was to register more than 160,000 Latino, Hispanic and American Indian voters, one report said.
        Could the foundation have raised more than the $1.73 million that's been reported? Maybe. IRS filings for 2008 are not yet available.
        State records show that the foundation was dissolved last month.
        No donor list
        Even if a public charity isn't legally bound to disclose donors, the information can still be released voluntarily, said Suzanne Coffman of GuideStar, a Washington organization that maintains data about 1.7 million nonprofits.
        "A lot of times it (donor information) is on an annual report (the organization files publicly)," Coffman said.
        There's no evidence, however, that the Moving America Forward Foundation published an annual report listing donors.
        A check of the Internet did turn up annual reports filed by two national foundations showing their donations to the Moving America Forward Foundation in 2004 and 2006.
        Contributions by the Tides Foundation and the Threshold Foundation accounted for about $79,768. Both are nonprofits that emphasize social change.
        State reports for the Moving America Forward PAC list specific expenditures made and to whom.
        By contrast, the foundation's IRS filings show amounts paid in general expense categories. Some of the biggest costs: $901,280 for "consulting and training," $200,973 for salaries and wages, and $86,261 for a "gotv phone program."
        Craig Holman, with the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said it's "fairly common" for public officials to create nonprofits for certain causes "and it is exceedingly difficult and actually impossible to find out the list of individual contributors unless the (nonprofit) wants to disclose the information itself."
        There have been no reports that CDR or any other state vendor donated to the foundation.
        But, Holman said, there's a potential for abuse when contributors' names don't have to be disclosed publicly.
        "Sometimes, you'll see these (nonprofits) raise a great deal of money from special interests that have business pending before the government," Holman said. "Major contributors, anytime they get a chance to throw money at the feet of someone who has oversight over the business, they will often do so."

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