E-mail mess looks a lot like Richardson scandals
A company that donated to the governor’s campaign won a lucrative state contract after hiring a political insider who was communicating privately with at least one person in the governor’s inner circle before the contract was awarded. Think I’m talking about Bill Richardson? Think again.
While a candidate for governor in 2010, Susana Martinez worked hard to convince New Mexicans that state government was corrupt.
For example, former Gov. Bill Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish created “one of the most corrupt state governments in New Mexico history where ‘pay-to-play’ has become a household term,” Martinez wrote in a guest column for NMPolitics.net.
Martinez promised to do things differently.
“The acceptance of a culture of corruption will finally come to an end, and a new culture of zero tolerance and responsibility will be instilled in the Roundhouse as we once again serve the people we represent,” she wrote in that same column.
Well, we haven’t seen proof of actual corruption. But the appearance created by the recent revelation that Martinez insiders, including some staffers, have discussed public business using private e-mail accounts smacks of the same sort of activity that got Richardson in so much trouble.
The Downs deal
The most damning example yet was revealed Tuesday when the left-leaning Independent Source PAC released a new batch of e-mails it had obtained. The three e-mails, sent from attorney Pat Rogers to people close to Martinez, relate to the awarding of a contract for a 25-year lease at the state fairgrounds and were sent after the bidding process was complete but before the State Fair Commission approved the lease.
Rogers represented the Downs at Albuquerque, which had already been recommended and ultimately won the contract. Companies have the right to lobby for contracts, and there are lots of e-mails Rogers sent to Martinez officials’ government accounts, proving he did much of his communication through official channels.
What’s unique in this instance is that Rogers sent the three e-mails to Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Cangiolosi’s campaign e-mail account. Two of them also went to Martinez’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey, who is not a state employee.
In one e-mail, Rogers told Cangiolosi and McCleskey that a state fair commissioner who cried foul over the Downs at Albuquerque deal had copied an Albuquerque Journal reporter on an e-mail she sent to an official involved in the process.
“I need 5 minutes of your time, quickly, this am, now,” Rogers’ e-mail states.
As NMPolitics.net reported today, the Martinez administration claims the e-mails to Cangiolosi were “illegally intercepted” and he never received them. Regardless, the situation raises questions about what other off-the-record communications Rogers had with people close to Martinez about the Downs deal.
Why is that important? Rogers is a GOP insider. He’s the Republican National committeeman for New Mexico and a former general counsel for the state GOP. His client won the contract in question after giving at least $70,000 to Martinez’s 2010 campaign (it also gave $50,000 to Martinez’s opponent, Denish).
And now we have evidence that Rogers was communicating or attempting to communicate about the contract, using private e-mail, with a Martinez government staffer and her political adviser – people who have influence.
Martinez promised to be different
It’s true that we don’t know the full context of the e-mails, but the context doesn’t really matter. The point is this: A company that gave lots of money to Martinez’s 2010 campaign won a lucrative contract after hiring a GOP insider who was communicating privately about the contract, before it was awarded, with, at the very least, McCleskey – who Martinez has called “a top adviser.”
How is that different than what Richardson did?
There’s one important difference: There were too many situations like this in the Richardson years to track them all. We haven’t seen as many from Martinez. That’s an improvement.
But it appears that such situations are still occurring.
I’m not calling Martinez or her administration corrupt. We’ve not seen proof of actual graft. However, we usually didn’t see proof of actual pay-for-play in instances in which Richardson donors won state contracts. That didn’t stop Martinez from working to convince voters – successfully – that Richardson’s actions were actual corruption.
And she promised to be different.
Avoiding the appearance of impropriety
I understand that New Mexico is a small state and many of us have ties that create awkward ethical situations from time to time. We wear many hats. I’ve disclosed repeatedly that I’m friends with Bill McCamley, who is a candidate for a state House seat this year.
In an ideal world, that would mean I never cover McCamley’s races. But I don’t have the resources to pass an entire race off to someone else. So I do the next best thing – be fully transparent about the situation and let you hold me accountable for providing fair coverage.
Here’s another example of the lengths I believe those who have influence over the public debate have to go at times to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Awhile back I was cited for running a stop sign in Las Cruces. I didn’t believe I had run the stop sign, and considered contesting the ticket. I had every right to contest it.
But that would have meant pleading my case before one of two municipal judges, and I had written about both having run-ins with the Judicial Standards Commission. I didn’t want to create a situation in which, if I wrote positive stories about the judge, people would question the potential appearance of a quid pro quo: the dismissal of my ticket in exchange for more favorable coverage.
So I paid the fine.
Establishing that you have nothing to hide
I’m not saying Rogers shouldn’t represent a company seeking a state contract. That’s his choice. But if he’s going to do it, he’d better make damn sure the situation is as transparent as possible. He should know that, given that he is on the board of the N.M. Foundation for Open Government and one of the best government transparency lawyers in the state. All communications should be through official channels – to government e-mail accounts, for example – so there’s a public record. Creating a public record establishes that you have nothing to hide.
Independent Source PAC’s Michael Corwin told me that, in response to a records request, he received “a whole bunch” of e-mails that Rogers sent to Martinez officials’ government accounts during the lease process. That’s great. It’s what should have happened with every e-mail. The fact that it wasn’t raises further questions about why Rogers sent some to private addresses.
McCleskey’s request for information from the Public Education Department, which also recently came to light, creates a similarly negative appearance. McCleskey first made the request verbally to public information officer Larry Behrens. Behrens sent his initial response from his personal e-mail account to McCleskey. The personal e-mail accounts of high-raking Martinez administration officials were copied on the response.
That creates the appearance that the request was to be off the books – an appearance that was compounded by the fact that Behrens separated union teachers from non-union teachers for McCleskey before sending him a list of teachers’ e-mail addresses.
That apparently wasn’t what McCleskey wanted, and his consulting business later filed a formal, written request for teachers’ addresses and received a formal denial.
McCleskey should have used such formal channels from the start.
It’s not because McCleskey isn’t allowed to pick up the phone and request documents. McCleskey, like anyone else, is entitled to request information from government, and the Inspection of Public Records Act allows verbal requests. But McCleskey should instead make written, official requests to create public records and establish that he’s using formal channels, not insider status, to get records.
Martinez’s next step
It’s possible Martinez wasn’t aware of Rogers’ e-mails to people close to her about the state fairgrounds lease. And Behrens’ response to McCleskey using his personal e-mail was sent to Martinez’s susana2010.com address that her administration says was compromised, so it’s possible she never saw it.
Other e-mails that came to light recently show that Martinez was discussing Corrections Department business with staffers using a political action committee e-mail account.
Martinez took a positive step last week by ordering state government employees to use state e-mail when conducting official business – an order that apparently also applies to herself. Now she needs to take the next step and direct others around her, such as McCleskey and Rogers, to use official channels when they communicate with her administration about official business.
Otherwise, the appearance of special treatment for insiders created by these e-mails – the very same appearance Martinez correctly criticized Richardson for creating – will remain.
This commentary has been updated to clarify that Rogers sent his e-mails after the bidding process was complete but before the contract was awarded. An earlier version incorrectly stated that he sent them before the bidding process was complete.