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          Front Page

Racing Money, Political Hires

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          A couple items:
        The Richardson administration, apparently tired of all those pesky questions about the governor's political appointees, recently refused to release an up-to-date list of the employees, their salaries and titles.
        It had provided such lists on numerous occasions over Gov. Bill Richardson's nearly eight years in office.
        Meanwhile, on the campaign-finance front, former state Racing Commission director and New Mexico House candidate Julian Luna hasn't yet followed through on a pledge to return a $5,000 campaign contribution to a company owned in large part by Paul Blanchard, president of The Downs horse-racing track in Albuquerque.
        Back to the political hires.
        I asked the administration last month for a list of the appointees to state jobs. Instead, the Department of Finance and Administration gave me an "organizational list" for all of the nearly 24,000 state workers, including career employees. Buried in those 1,500 pages is the information on the appointees, formally known as exempt employees.
        "The (organizational lists) are produced in the ordinary course of business and have all the information responsive to your request," a spokeswoman for Finance and Administration said in an e-mail.
        When I objected, the spokeswoman came up with a list of appointees it had created in July for the Legislative Council Service.
        The DFA hasn't yet given a reason for not providing an up-to-date list containing only exempt employees as it had done in the past when asked.
        The growth in the number and salaries of political appointees has been an issue for much of Richardson's time in office. Both candidates to succeed him, Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Republican District Attorney Susana Martinez, have said they would cut the number of exempt employees.
        Richardson substantially grew the number of political appointees, which peaked at about 470. More than 100 exempt employees made in excess of $100,000 at one point, with one appointee taking down north of $300k.
        The administration's refusal to release up-to-date lists on political appointees will make it more difficult — but not impossible — to continue to track the transfers of exempt employees into career, or classified, jobs to help shield them from dismissal under the next administration.
        The contribution
        As for Luna, he received the contribution from the Blanchard company in April while still director of the Racing Commission, a job he held for much of the past two decades. He retired from that job effective Sept 1. and now collects a pension of more than $74,000 a year.
        "We're just waiting until the end of the campaign" to give the money back, Luna said last week.
        He defeated lawyer Elias Barela, a member of the House since 2007, in the Democratic primary election in June and faces Republican Alonzo Baldonado in the general election Tuesday. Both Luna and Baldonado are from Los Lunas.
        I reported in June on the campaign contributions Luna had received from donors with ties to the horse-racing industry, including the $5,000 from Defined Fitness, an Albuquerque-based chain of health and fitness clubs that is owned in part by Blanchard, a major contributor to Democratic candidates.
        Lawyer Traci Wolf, president of Defined Fitness, said at the time that Blanchard had nothing to do with the contribution and that she had known Luna for years. When contacted, Luna didn't initially recognize Wolf's name. He pledged to return the money from Defined Fitness and any other questionable donations.
        In his campaign-finance report due Sept. 13, Luna reported returning $500 from a horse-breeding farm in Carlsbad, $105 from the New Mexico Horse Breeders Association and $250 from the law firm of Sam Bregman, who has represented Canadian businessman Michael Moldenhauer in his failed bid to develop a track and casino in Raton.
        Luna said he is waiting until the end of the campaign to review all donations and return the $5,000 to Defined Fitness, as well as any other contributions found to pose conflicts of interest.
        Exactly what would pose a conflict for Luna if elected isn't clear, and he has been raking in the dough from the racing industry and others since winning the primary and leaving the Racing Commission.
        In his campaign-finance report due Oct. 12, Luna reported receiving $1,000 each from the racetracks/slots casinos in Farmington and Sunland Park, $500 from the New Mexico Horsemen's Association, $500 from Racing Commission Chairwoman Marty Cope and $300 from Gaming Control Board Chairman David Norvell.
        He also reported receiving $3,000 from the political action committee for the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, as well as donations from lobbyists, car dealers, Indian tribes, real estate interests and others.
        Luna reported raising a total of $62,636 for his campaign and spending more than $44,000, leaving him with more than $18,000 in his campaign fund heading into the final few weeks of the election.
        Baldonado, a real estate broker making his first run for public office, reported in his Oct. 12 filing that he had collected about $30,000 and still had more than $9,000 in the bank. His largest contributors included Roswell businessman Mark Murphy and Republican Party officials and PACs.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at (505) 992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com.

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