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Monday, May 19, 2008
Senator's Spending Bills Benefited Employer
By Thomas J. Cole
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Investigative Reporter
State Sen. Joe Carraro worked as a $5,000-a-month consultant for an artificial turf company while seeking budget appropriations for government work later awarded to the firm.
Carraro, an Albuquerque Republican and a candidate for Congress in the June 3 primary election, denied using his position as a senator to benefit Real Turf & Putting Greens.
"I've made mistakes in my life, (but) I've never done anything wrong," said Carraro, who has served nearly 20 years in the Senate but is giving up the seat for the congressional race.
The senator worked from about June 2005 to February 2006 for Real Turf.
Carraro, a former restaurant owner who has studied and taught business management, was hired to provide business consulting and marketing services to the company, according to a contract proposal.
The appropriations sought by Carraro for playground and ballfield improvements while he was working for Real Turf weren't specifically earmarked for the company.
At the time, however, Real Turf had a price agreement with the U.S. General Services Administration that allowed public schools and other local governments to hire Real Turf without seeking bids.
While working as a consultant for Real Turf, Carraro sponsored $50,000 of a $466,500 appropriation for improvements to the West Mesa Little League field in Albuquerque.
Three other lawmakers sponsored the remainder of the appropriation.
Nearly $413,000 went to Real Turf for artificial grass for the West Mesa field in a no-bid purchase, according to the city of Albuquerque, which oversaw the project.
Also while a consultant for Real Turf, Carraro sponsored $200,000 in appropriations for playground improvements at four Albuquerque elementary schools.
About $50,000 of that money went to Real Turf and about $50,000 to a competitor.
A former accountant for Real Turf has said that company President Richard B. "Rick" Wickens told her that Carraro marketed Real Turf to schools and helped collect payments for its work.
Carraro denied the allegation in an interview last week, saying he "never called a school, never called anybody" on the company's behalf while on its payroll.
He said he told school officials and other local government leaders in November 2005 that he was working for Real Turf and wouldn't be involved with appropriations for the purchase of artificial turf from the company.
Carraro said he told the officials he could still provide assistance on appropriations not specifically dealing with a choice of artificial turf.
Wickens couldn't be reached for comment.
Real Turf filed for bankruptcy in September 2007, six months after the FBI searched its office in connection with a bank-fraud investigation of Wickens. He hasn't been charged in the case.
Real Turf has been the subject of several complaints about the durability of its artificial grass and quality of its workmanship in installing the turf.
Bankruptcy Court records indicate that the company is no longer operating.
Carraro said he didn't know the appropriation for the West Mesa field was used to purchase artificial turf.
He also said the work Real Turf did at one of the elementary schools was a continuation of a project that began before he went to work for the company.
The senator wasn't a sponsor of several other appropriations for projects that involved Real Turf at schools in Albuquerque and other communities around the state.
Carraro also sought appropriations for playground and ballfield improvements prior to and after his time working as a consultant for Real Turf.
Carraro's work for Real Turf surfaced in a wrongful-discharge lawsuit filed in 2005 by a former company employee.
Real Turf records disclosed in the suit show the senator was paid $5,000 a month for consulting services from June 1, 2005, through at least Jan. 31, 2006, for a total of $40,000.
The last check was dated Feb. 7, 2006, according to the records.
The Legislature was in session at that time, considering, among other items, appropriations for improvements at schools and other capital projects.
Carraro said that the West Mesa Little League field isn't in his district and that he didn't put together the appropriation for the improvements.
He said he agreed to sponsor some of the appropriation because some children in his district use the field.
"I had no idea they (Real Turf) got West Mesa," he said. "How Real Turf got in there I have no idea."
John Castillo, director of the city of Albuquerque's Municipal Development Department, said his understanding was that Real Turf got the job because its GSA price agreement allowed the city to hire the company without seeking bids from competitors.
Carraro said a $50,000 appropriation he sponsored in 2006 for playground improvements at Petroglyph Elementary School was to finish installing artificial turf.
Real Turf, which had installed turf on some of the playground a few years before, was hired to complete the job.
During the 2006 legislative session, while he was a consultant for Real Turf, Carraro also sponsored several other appropriations for playground and ballfield improvements that ultimately weren't approved.
One of those proposals specifically called for installation of artificial turf.
Carraro said he wouldn't have made the requests for playground improvements unless the schools asked for them. All or nearly all of the requested appropriations fit within the capital master plan of Albuquerque Public Schools.
"They all wanted computers, too," he said.
Carraro was deposed in May 2007 in the wrongful-discharge suit against Real Turf.
At that deposition, he produced a copy of a letter he said he mailed in November 2005 to officials at Albuquerque and Rio Rancho public schools, the cities of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, and Bernalillo and Sandoval counties.
The letter said:
"Due to personal and business relationships with the synthetic turf company Real Turf, I will not be able to be involved in the direct appropriation of monies for the purchase of their product."
Carraro said in the letter that he was concerned about "the possibility of a perceived conflict of interest."
The senator said in the deposition that he believed the letter was prompted by appropriations requests he was receiving as the Legislature prepared to meet in January 2006.
Sherrie Galigan, an accountant who worked for Real Turf, was also deposed in the suit filed against the company and was asked about Carraro's work for Real Turf.
"You know, I was real upset about that, because I couldn't pay the bills, and here I was paying Joe Carraro a check for five grand. He always seemed to have his hands in Rick's (Wickens) pockets."
Galigan said Wickens told her that Carraro called schools to speed up payments to Real Turf.
"He was also calling some of the other schools, I guess to push our product on them. ... This is just what Rick told me. I never actually saw him do anything," she said.
Carraro said in the interview that "what that bookkeeper says is wrong."
Asked in his deposition if he had discussed Real Turf with government entities while he was working for the company, the senator said, "No. I think I might have mentioned artificial turf but never Real Turf."
He said in the interview that the only time he recommended Real Turf was to Bernalillo County for the Paradise Hills ballfields and that was before he went to work for the company.
The county said it spent nearly $28,000 on artificial turf for a baseball field.
None of the appropriations sought in 2006 by Carraro required that the money be spent on artificial turf.
One $50,000 appropriation for playground improvements wasn't spent on artificial turf. Another $50,000 appropriation hasn't yet been used.
Carraro said in his deposition that he became interested in artificial turf in 2003 as a water-saving alternative and that, over the next few years, met Wickens and became familiar with Real Turf's product.
He said that, prior to being hired by Real Turf, he sought state money for artificial turf at the Paradise Hills ballfields. Real Turf got that job.
He said that he met Wickens in about the spring of 2004 and that Wickens frequently sought his advice on business matters over the following year.
Carraro said he eventually told Wickens he was going to have to start paying him and, in May 2005, he sent Wickens a letter that he called a contract proposal.
Carraro said his company, Public Perceptions, would provide marketing and business consulting services in exchange for the $5,000-a-month fee.
The letter also said there was "not a direct relationship" between Carraro's position as a senator and services Public Perceptions would provide.
Carraro also wrote that Public Perceptions wouldn't be involved with any government entity on Real Turf's behalf.
"There can never be a real or perceived conflict of interest regarding my positions as a state senator and president of Public Perceptions," he said, adding:
"Specifically, it should be noted that recommendations of your product to governmental entities given prior to this contract ... in no way bound you to the employment of Public Perceptions."
In his deposition, Carraro said his work for Real Turf included meeting with Wickens and other managers, reviewing management job descriptions, providing advice on marketing, writing advertisements and working on printed publications.
"I ... analyzed their business, figured out ways for them to make more money," he said.
Carraro said he stopped working for Real Turf because the company quit paying him. He also said he had become frustrated with Wickens' failure to implement many of his suggestions.
Landscaping on Irving
In 2005, before he went to work for Real Turf but during the time he was giving business advice to Wickens, Carraro obtained a $200,000 appropriation for the city of Albuquerque to make landscape improvements on Irving Boulevard NW.
The appropriation didn't specify artificial turf, but Carraro has said that's what he wanted the money used for landscaping seven medians.
The $200,000, he said in the interview, matched the amount of money that Real Turf told Carraro it would do the job for. Carraro said the $200,000 was a deep discount.
Carraro said he told the city that Real Turf would do the work for $200,000 but that he didn't recommend the company be hired.
The city ended up spending a small portion of the $200,000 on artificial grass provided by a Real Turf competitor. The rest of the money went toward plants mixed with the fake grass and an irrigation system.
The city completed landscaping on just one of the seven medians where Carraro wanted artificial turf.
"It seems like these people are going crazy spending money," the senator said in 2007 in complaining about how the city handled the project.
Carraro said he had gotten the idea of artificial turf medians from visits to Scottsdale, Ariz.
"He was insistent on artificial turf," a city official said in a 2007 news story about the flap between Carraro and the city.
In an op-ed article he wrote for the Journal, Carraro also complained that the city went with "turf of an apparently cheaper grade that doesn't resemble real grass as intended."
The senator didn't disclose his previous work for Real Turf in the article.
Carraro said in the interview that he felt no need to do so since the business relationship had ended. He said he only recommended that the city consider Real Turf for the medians job.
"I wasn't telling them they had to go with them," he said.
2004: Sen. Joe Carraro meets Richard B. "Rick" Wickens, president of Real Turf & Putting Greens, at a charity fundraiser. The two become friends, and Wickens informally seeks Carraro's advice on running his business.
JANUARY 2005: The New Mexico Legislature meets, and Carraro sponsors $200,000 appropriation to landscape seven medians on Irving Boulevard NW. Carraro negotiates with Real Turf to install artificial grass for that amount on those medians.
MAY 2005: Carraro, after telling Wickens he was going to have to start paying him for business advice, agrees to work as a consultant to Real Turf for $5,000 a month.
NOVEMBER 2005: Carraro discloses to school and local officials that he is working for Real Turf and can't be involved in appropriations for purchases of the company's product.
JANUARY 2006: Legislature meets and Carraro introduces legislation calling for several appropriations for playground and ballfield improvements. About $100,000 sponsored by Carraro eventually goes to Real Turf for artificial grass.
FEBRUARY 2006: Real Turf pays Carraro $5,000 fee for January, apparently the last payment to the senator. The senator said he quit working for the company because it stopped paying him and because some of his advice wasn't followed.
JULY 2007: Carraro criticizes city for how it spent $200,000 appropriation he sponsored for Irving Boulevard landscaping. Just one of seven medians got artificial grass and it was purchased from a Real Turf competitor. Carraro, in an op-ed article in the Journal, says city shouldn't have spent some of money on plants and irrigation.
MARCH 2007: Real Turf office searched in federal bank-fraud investigation of Wickens.
SEPTEMBER 2007: Real Turf files for bankruptcy.
Statement to the Journal
State Senate rules prohibit members from using their offices for private gain and require senators to attempt to ensure their private employment doesn't impair their impartiality. Senators are required to vote on a bill unless they have a direct financial interest in the legislation.
The 2006 appropriations sponsored by Sen. Joe Carraro for playground and ballfield improvements didn't specifically mention artificial grass or the company for which Carraro worked.
"I truly believe that I acted not only legally and ethically, but also as a citizen legislator, in the public's interest," Carraro said in a statement to the Journal.