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          Front Page




Land Office to Be Audited

By Rene Romo
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Southern Bureau
    LAS CRUCES— Already under fire from the attorney general, the State Land Office will undergo a special audit of sales, exchanges and leases of trust lands under Commissioner Patrick Lyons.
    State Auditor Hector Balderas sent Lyons a letter Thursday informing the commissioner of the audit, which five Democratic state representatives requested in April.
    "There's been considerable interest in the practices of exchanges, sales and leasing, and we want to be able to provide our opinion on whether the state of New Mexico and citizens are receiving a maximum benefit from their public resources," Balderas said Thursday.
    The legislators, led by Rep. Nathan Cote of Las Cruces, requested the special audit after Attorney General Gary King's office issued an opinion in February saying a key provision of a typical business planning lease for trust land in Las Cruces was not authorized under state law.
    At issue is whether the Land Office can compensate lease-holding developers, when state trust land is sold, for "intangible improvements," such as master planning and zoning changes undertaken by the developers.
    Balderas said the audit report could recommend policy changes.
    "It's definitely going to be a report that's relevant not only to the State Land Office, but also possibly to the Legislature and the citizens of New Mexico," he said.
    Lyons' office and several developers have said the attorney general's opinion, if enforced, could jeopardize development projects involving trust lands around the state. Lyons has moved ahead with several land sales despite the attorney general's opinion.
    "We'll help them (auditors) out in any way, shape or form that we can," said Robert Stranahan, general counsel for the Land Office. "Do I think this is a waste of time? I don't know. If they find we are not tracking payments properly, we'll be thankful that they did it. ... I won't know if it's meaningless until it's completed."
    Balderas said the special audit is top priority and could be finished by the end of the year.
    Stranahan said he believes the audit is "politically motivated." He noted that the five legislators who requested the audit are Democrats and Lyons is a Republican.
    Cote denied any political motivation. "It's a matter of doing what's best for the beneficiaries," he said.
    Cote said the audit will either "clear the air of any perception of mismanagement or wrong-doing," identify problems or identify areas that need legislative fixes.
    "I'm sure the audit will be without bias, as it should be," Cote said.