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State Fair Commission Takes Turkey Off Menu

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          The administration of Gov. Bill Richardson called off that home-cooked meal it had planned to serve today at the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque.
        The State Fair Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, had been scheduled to consider an eleventh-hour, back-room deal enabling the Downs at Albuquerque to build a new slots casino.
        Craig Swagerty, general manager of Expo New Mexico, the agency that runs the fair, said the meeting was canceled because he didn't expect a quorum of commissioners to attend.
        Maybe commissioners realized the deal just didn't look good with Richardson leaving office Friday.
        The Downs and its officers — including Richardson good buddy Paul Blanchard — contributed more than $300,000 to Richardson's two campaigns for governor. Blanchard also was a major fundraiser for Richardson.
        State Fair Commissioner Denny Gentry, who says he was appointed by Richardson primarily to work out the deal with the Downs, has partnered with Blanchard in cowboy roping competitions.
        I had hoped not to write another word about Richardson before he leaves office, but the Downs deal made that impossible.
        Let me take you back briefly to remarks by Richardson in an interview he gave last week to Dan Boyd of the Journal Capitol bureau.
        Asked about news media coverage of his eight years as governor, Richardson said the Journal had been "unfair," "biased" and "driven by a political agenda." He also said the pay-to-play investigations of his Democratic administration were "so unfair" and "politically motivated."
        Another vast right-wing conspiracy, I guess. Never mind that it was a Democratic president, Barack Obama, who dumped him for a Cabinet job because of a federal investigation. Perhaps it's the Clintons who are after Richardson.
        The truth, however, is that no one has been more responsible for the tarnish on this administration than the man himself, his oversized appetite for campaign cash and what he believed money would do for his national political career.
        It is correct, as Richardson has pointed out, that no one has been charged with, much less convicted of, buying a favor from the administration. But it also is true that there has been the appearance of insider dealings or potential wrongdoing again, again and again. Look no further than the latest example, the one involving the Fair Commission and the Downs.
        Under the deal, the Downs would pay for the new casino but Expo New Mexico would own the building. The Downs would lease the larger, more profitable casino and the existing horse-racing track for up to 40 years.
        The deal isn't without merit. The current casino is a dump. Expo New Mexico is strapped for money and could use the additional lease revenue. The track and casino would stay in Albuquerque (Blanchard has threatened to move the operation to Moriarty). More gambling dollars would be spent at the Downs and less at nearby tribal casinos, where the state's share of revenue from the action is much smaller than it is at tracks and state racinos.
        Of course, there are also negatives to the proposal, including the effects on neighborhoods around the fairgrounds.
        The biggest problem, however, was that there was no way the public could have confidence that this deal at this hour with this little advance information was good for the taxpayers and the public.
        The cancellation of today's vote means Susana Martinez, who takes office Saturday as governor, and her appointees will now review the Downs deal. The Legislature also apparently will need to OK any proposal.
        During the race for governor this year, the Downs and officers of the company contributed at least $36,000 to Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, the loser in the general election.
        But Downs part-owner William Windham covered the bases, dropping a $15,000 donation on Martinez. Maybe he knew he might need a favor someday.
        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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