Guv, Lt. Guv spent public money on political news releases
Denish, whose office spent money on other political work as well, plans to reimburse state with campaign funds; no comment yet from Richardson
Three 2004 news releases put out by Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s government office had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with governing – but they were paid for with federal stimulus dollars.
Contract worker Lauran Cowdrey produced the releases, including one that announced Denish’s support of then-Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry’s picking John Edwards to be his running mate. The office of Gov. Bill Richardson also used public resources in 2004 to produce at least one political news release, which also praised Kerry’s selection of Edwards.
The revelation about the news releases – proof that Denish and Richardson were spending at least some public funds on politics – comes after a week in which Denish has been heavily criticized for her use of the federal stimulus money. At least one good-government advocate says – and the lieutenant governor’s office agrees – that spending public money on politics is not appropriate.
Denish’s chief of staff said late Tuesday that her gubernatorial campaign will reimburse her government office $790.54 for the cost of creating and distributing the three news releases and for work done by Cowdrey on two other days that appears to have been related to political events. Richardson’s office has not responded to an e-mail request for comment about whether the governor sees any problem with spending public money on politics.
After being shown one of the three news releases in question, Denish Chief of Staff Joshua Rosen said this afternoon that public dollars never should have gone to such an expense.
“Quite simply, the state should not have been invoiced for these press statements relating to the election,” Rosen said. “The lieutenant governor expressly forbids campaign work from being done from the state office and she was unaware that these charges were misapplied.”
Rosen said Denish “firmly believes that a strict wall must exist between politics and official state work.” The reimbursement from the campaign will include four days of work for which Cowdrey billed the state.
Denish’s office paid Cowdrey $23.50 per hour to do public relations work with funds that came from the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. Richardson gave Denish $225,000 in funds appropriated to New Mexico under the act.
Spending public money on politics is ‘generally inappropriate’
Spending public money on politics is “generally inappropriate,” said Steven Robert Allen, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.
“As a general rule, the official business of the office should be separate from any outside political business that is being done,” he said.
New Mexico’s statute related to such conflicts is “pretty straightforward and speaks for itself,” said Peggy Kerns, the director for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Center for Ethics in Government.
Here’s what that statute says:
“A legislator, public officer or employee shall treat the legislator’s, public officer’s or employee’s government position as a public trust. The legislator, public officer or employee shall use the powers and resources of public office only to advance the public interest and not to obtain personal benefits or pursue private interests incompatible with the public interest.”
Two of the three news releases for which Denish’s campaign plans to reimburse the state were clearly politically oriented because they are on letterhead from Denish’s campaign (read them here and here). The third, which was sent out in July 2004, is on government letterhead and, like the other two releases, includes contact info for Cowdrey.
That release is clearly all about Kerry’s 2004 campaign, which Denish chaired in New Mexico.
“Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish says she supports John Kerry’s choice of North Carolina Senator John Edwards as his Presidential running mate,” the release states.
Richardson’s office also put out a July 2004 news release about Kerry’s selection of Edwards.
“Senator Edwards is a strong Vice Presidential candidate,” Richardson said in the release. “He deserves the vice presidential nod because of his hard work and his strong appeal to working families. He’ll bring tremendous excitement and energy to the ticket.”
Other political expenditures
Cowdrey apparently billed the state for other political work and was paid for it after her invoices went through the standard approval process involving the state Department of Finance and Administration. Rosen has provided documents to show that Denish’s campaign paid for the printing and mailing of a 2004 Christmas card, but Cowdrey, on three days, billed Denish’s office for what Cowdrey called “work on Christmas Card.”
Rosen has said there was only one Christmas card in 2004. Last week he said that staffs’ recollection was that the work referenced on the invoices had to do with a holiday open house. He said the card was “primarily handled and paid for by the Denish campaign, not the state office.”
Today, he said this:
“We reviewed all the documents we could locate and it’s clear the campaign paid for all direct costs of the Christmas card. If Cowdrey spent any time at all on the card, we believe she was simply proofreading it in her role as the lieutenant governor’s public information officer.”
There are two other references in Cowdrey’s invoices to political work:
• “8/4 9 hours: More tax credit plan work, set up interviews, work on Kerry for Saturday, consultant letter for Carlos, etc.”
• “7/28 8 hours: DNC media binder, organizing clips, manning front office while Barbara attended day-long class.”
Rosen confirmed that work done on both of those days – July 28 and Aug. 4, 2004 – is among the work for which Denish’s campaign is reimbursing the state.
Kerry was in New Mexico the Saturday after Aug. 4, 2004, riding a train with Edwards through Raton to Albuquerque. Denish joined the two at a campaign stop in Las Vegas, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Rosen reiterated today what he said about that on Monday:
“The work done by this contract public information officer relating to an event for Sen. Kerry or the 2004 election consisted of fielding media calls, providing logistical information about Lt. Gov. Denish’s role and clarifying a remark on behalf of the lieutenant governor,” Rosen said.
Beyond confirming the reimbursement, Rosen has not released any statement or information in response to questions about the reference to the DNC. The date mentioned in that invoice – July 28, 2004 — coincides with the dates of the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Denish attended the Boston convention, serving as chair of the New Mexico delegation.
There’s another piece of evidence that Cowdrey was doing political work. In a July 8, 2004 article written by The Santa Fe New Mexican’s Steve Terrell, Cowdrey is identified as “a spokeswoman for Denish” and quoted as talking about a public spat between Denish and then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid over whether Edwards had a strong campaign organization in New Mexico when he was running for president earlier in 2004.
Rosen did not directly respond when asked about the quote from Cowdrey in Terrell’s article.
Denish is the likely Democratic nominee for governor. Republicans have hammered her in the last week over her spending of the federal stimulus money, which was first reported on by New Mexico Watchdog, a site funded by the libertarian Rio Grande Foundation.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Weh and former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson have called for formal probes. And today, Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez said she hopes the revelation about the news releases “will refresh Diane Denish’s memory concerning the misuse of federal stimulus funds, which were clearly intended for economic development, not political campaigns.”
This article has been updated to include additional information from Rosen.