Sunday, August 5, 2007
Plane Trips Courtesy of State DOT
By Thomas J. Cole
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Investigative Reporter
Two men the state Transportation Department said weren't involved with its headquarters redevelopment project in Santa Fe flew with DOT officials on state aircraft to project meetings in Texas.
Engineer Raul Parra and architect Roger Basarich flew with Toby Martinez, the project manager, and Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught to Dallas on Jan. 20, 2005, according to aircraft-use records.
Basarich and Faught shared another state plane to Dallas on Feb. 1, 2005, while Parra flew that day with Martinez and Transportation Commissioners Johnny Cope and Jim Franken.
The cost of the flights to the Transportation Department was more than $11,000. There was no reimbursement by Basarich or Parra.
Martinez and Parra's ties to the DOT project raise questions, as both were later indicted in the scandal surrounding construction of the Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque. Indictments allege both were key players in a scheme that looted about $4.2 million from the construction.
The Dallas trips were for meetings with representatives of RTKL Associates, an international firm the Transportation Department hired for the planning of its headquarters construction project.
Martinez solicited RTKL in November 2004 for the contract to do site planning and other initial work for the DOT project, which is to include a new department headquarters and a station for the Rail Runner commuter train.
At a meeting of the Transportation Commission in January 2005, Martinez said DOT had also signed a contract with Basarich's firm, CBL Architects, for planning of the project.
He also introduced Parra to the commissioners during the meeting.
For a story about Martinez's remarks to the commission, DOT spokesman S.U. Mahesh said in June that Parra "was not involved with this project in any fashion" and that Basarich "was not involved in any of the planning or architectural design. ..."
Faught later wrote in an opinion piece published in the Journal that Parra and Basarich weren't involved in RTKL's contract work for the department.
She wrote that Parra and Basarich attended meetings as representatives of RTKL, which she said had verbal agreements with the men that they would be involved if the company won a much larger contract for project design.
Asked in an interview Tuesday how Parra and Basarich could attend project meetings and not be involved, Faught said, "I understand why there's confusion."
She said RTKL didn't subcontract any of the project planning work to Parra or Basarich.
While the men took part in discussions about the project, "They weren't involved contractually. ... I don't think we misspoke," she said.
A 'great guy'
Faught hired Martinez in 2004 to manage design and construction of the headquarters project. He had been fired as Metro Court administrator the previous year over domestic abuse allegations by his ex-wife.
Martinez, while Metro Court administrator, signed off on proposed change orders that added millions of dollars to the cost of the courthouse construction. Prosecutors contend that money was funneled to others who have been indicted, including Parra and former Sen. Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque.
Martinez, Parra and Aragon have pleaded not guilty in the scandal.
Martinez resigned as manager for the DOT headquarters project in January 2006 after telling supervisors he was under federal investigation, Faught has said.
Faught said in the interview that she contacted Aragon before hiring Martinez because she was aware that the former Senate president pro-tem knew him.
Faught said Aragon recommended Martinez for the job, saying he was a "great guy" and would do a "great job."
Aircraft-use reports show two state turboprops flew from Santa Fe to Dallas on the afternoon of Jan. 20, 2005, at a cost of more than $4,100.
On board one of the planes was Transportation Commissioner David Schutz, a Santa Fe city councilor, the state architect and an employee of the Mid-Region Council of Governments.
The second plane carried Martinez, Parra, Basarich and Faught.
Two days later, at a cost of nearly $1,900, a state plane was dispatched to Dallas to pick up the travelers and return them to Santa Fe.
The second trip to meet with RTKL representatives occurred Feb. 1, and also involved two planes.
Basarich and Faught at a cost of nearly $2,600 flew on one craft nonstop from Santa Fe to Dallas in the afternoon.
The other plane left Santa Fe in the morning and made stops in Las Vegas, N.M., and Hobbs. Parra, Martinez and DOT Commissioners Cope and Franken flew on that craft.
That plane returned to New Mexico the following day with Basarich, Faught, Franken and Cope on board. Parra and Martinez didn't return from Dallas on the aircraft. Faught said she didn't know why they didn't make the return trip.
The roundtrip flight for that aircraft was about $2,800.
Mahesh, the DOT spokesman, said state planes were used since the trips involved government business.
"It was cost-effective to use state planes to pick up all these individuals from various locations ... and take them to Dallas," he said.
Mahesh said Parra and Basarich didn't reimburse DOT for flight costs.
"Parra and Basarich were invited to fly because there was room available on the plane, their attendance did not incur additional cost and they were also attending the same meetings," he said.
However, for the first trip to Dallas, the department had eight passengers and took two six-passenger King Air planes. Had Parra and Basarich not flown, the department could have taken a single King Air.
Mahesh said two planes were taken because three other government officials were scheduled to go on the trip but canceled.
For the second trip, the DOT again took two six-passenger planes but had just six passengers for both the trips to and from Dallas.
Mahesh said two planes were needed because Faught couldn't leave in the morning on the first flight due to her work schedule during the Legislature.
Faught said she didn't recall who invited Parra and Basarich to ride along for free.
The DOT disclosed last month that Parra and Basarich had attended a meeting with RTKL representatives in Dallas but said the two were just "tagging along" and didn't disclose they flew with DOT officials on state aircraft.
In addition to meeting with RTKL representatives, the transportation officials and others also visited transit-related developments by RTKL in Dallas.
The secretary and Basarich were romantically involved at one time, but she said she never thought about an appearance problem being created by just the two of them flying on one plane.
Faught has said that she neither provided help to Basarich nor asked for his architectural services.
Martinez told the Transportation Commission in January 2005 that the DOT had signed a project planning contract with Basarich's firm CBL Architects.
Basarich and the Transportation Department both say no such contract existed.
Basarich has said Martinez made a wrong assumption for an unknown reason but that he wasn't going to correct a DOT employee at the commission meeting.
Basarich, in an interview Wednesday, said he had worked with RTKL on other projects and hoped to work with the firm if it got a major contract for design of the Transportation headquarters project.
He described his work on the Santa Fe project as "peripheral involvement" and said he neither had a contract with RTKL nor was paid by the firm.
He said his role was to assist RTKL in helping the department and to assist the firm in positioning it to get the larger contract.
"I'm (was) working with them," Basarich said. "I'm trying to impress them."
At project meetings, he said, "When I was asked questions, I answered."
He said he circulated and collected data on the Transportation Department's office space needs to help prepare RTKL for a possible bid on a design contract.
DOT eventually decided to issue a single contract for both design and construction of the project and RTKL never submitted a proposal.
The state in December chose SCS Development as the designer and builder.
Basarich said that he doesn't believe Parra was involved with RTKL but that he was trying to market himself to the firm in the event it got the design contract.
"His deal and his business dealings were his," Basarich said.
Bob Gorence, an attorney for Parra, declined comment.
Basarich has worked on other projects with Parra and Aragon.
Basarich said "it's frightening" to be linked to those charged in the Metro Courthouse scandal.
"I don't like kind of being rolled into this," he said.
The vice president of RTKL Associates who signed the contract with the DOT hasn't returned calls seeking comment, nor has Billy Blackburn, a lawyer for Martinez.
Faught said in the interview that the involvement of people charged in the Metropolitan Court case "does give us pause to think, 'What if?' ''
"What if they were planning something like this on this project? You can't help but wonder. ... It makes me sick to think about it, frankly."
Faught said she believes her department has had mechanisms in place to prevent such problems.
"I don't see any way possible that if something were happening that we wouldn't have caught it down the road," the secretary said.
The DOT has retained engineers, attorneys, financial experts and others to advise it on the project, she said. "It's a whole team looking at this very, very closely," Faught said.