When the State Fair Commission narrowly approved a questionable lease for the Downs at Albuquerque racino this past fall, liberals jumped at the opportunity to criticize the governor for continuing the state’s old practices.
After years of former Gov. Bill Richardson being scrutinized for pay-to-play allegations, Democrats accused the new administration of doing the same. Several people affiliated with the Downs, among them Paul Blanchard, a prominent Roundhouse lobbyist who was part of Richardson’s inner circle, supported Susana Martinez’ gubernatorial campaign.
Altogether, they gave Martinez $70,000, while donating at least $50,000 to Diane Denish, her Democratic opponent in 2010. Martinez, in her defense, pointed out that the Downs lease was awarded through a bidding process. But for many, the hint of a fixed contract overruled any argument that the campaign contributions had nothing to do with the deal. GOP State Fair Commissioner Charlotte Rode and Martinez ally Tom Tinnin both came out criticizing the deal as well.
“It’s alive and well,” Michael Corwin, executive director of the liberal nonprofit Independent Source PAC, says of pay-to-play. “Of all the ways she criticized, [Martinez] is doing business just the same.”
The governor’s office didn’t respond to emails or calls from SFR before press time.
If anything, the Downs deal has convinced people that pay-to-play shenanigans in New Mexico have yet to run their course. This past year was rife with government corruption scandals. At the close of 2011, a familiar face graced the national news as word leaked of a new grand jury investigation into Richardson’s alleged schemes.
Pay-to-play allegations also plagued the state’s judiciary this year. In May, a grand jury indicted Las Cruces District Judge Michael Murphy over allegations of bribing Democratic lawmakers for political gain. But that was just the beginning.
A judge cleared Murphy of the charges in September, which only led more grand jury hearings against his alleged deeds. In October, prosecutor Matt Chandler asked state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels, who had become involved in the Murphy case, to recuse himself.
Chandler, a Republican, insinuated that Daniels, a Democrat, had been appointed to the Supreme Court through his wife’s $1 million campaign contribution to Richardson, a rumor that remains unfounded. In turn, Chandler has been accused of shopping around for the right Republican judge to oversee the case against Murphy.
The accusations paint a picture of sloppy, politically motivated wheeling and dealing on all sides.
“If you want to see the 1 percent, it’s not the Wall Streeters,” David Collins, a reporter with the conservative-leaning website New Mexico Watchdog who followed the Murphy case closely, tells SFR. “It’s the attorneys in New Mexico.”
A few nonprofits are working to put anti-pay-to-play legislation on the agenda in January to prevent this kind of behavior. Think New Mexico is working on a bill to ban campaign contributions from lobbyists and government contractors. Similarly, Common Cause New Mexico is working with Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, to push for a bill requiring all political donations to be made public.
In the past, Martinez has voiced support for disclosing all donations publicly.
“It would be a really good fit for her, in a way,” outgoing Common Cause Executive Director Steve Allen tells SFR. “She campaigned big on transparency in government.”