In covering this year's elections, SFR reported on allegations made by Texas oil investor Nelson Spear about inconsistencies in Republican land commissioner candidate Bob Cornelius' campaign claims. Spear's allegations centered around Cornelius' frequent references to Petro Verde, LLC, a biogas company his now-defunct website said “will create hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in annual revenue for the city of Clovis.” SFR found that while Petro Verde did exist, it had yet to secure a single investor.
SFR's investigation also revealed that Cornelius—who also referred frequently to his major in political science and communications at Eastern New Mexico University—did not actually graduate from ENMU.
Prior to our first post, SFR spoke with Cornelius about the questions raised by Spear. Cornelius, who is quoted in the May 19 blog, told SFR that Petro Verde is active and that he'd met with Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield about the company's biogas project. Subsequently, he did not respond to e-mails and calls about his education. In a May 19 blog post titled “Cornelius Campaign: Inconsistencies Abound,” SFR published our findings.
On May 24, Cornelius sent an e-mail to SFR requesting a retraction and apology and listing the names of several people as evidence of his work with Petro Verde. After checking each reference, SFR sent Cornelius an e-mail on May 28, giving him the opportunity to respond. Below are Cornelius' initial request for a retraction and the results of SFR's fact-checking.
Note: While SFR did not intend to pursue this story after the primary election, the publication of a blog on this subject at Albuquerque Journal Watch prompted renewed protests from Cornelius, so SFR decided to publish our reportage thus far:
May 24, 2010 EMAIL FROM BOB CORNELIUS TO SFR EDITOR JULIA GOLDBERG
I write to you today in regard to a story titled “Cornelius Campaign: Inconsistencies Abound” written by Alexa Schirtzinger posted the www.sfreeper.com blog of which your paper owns and operates. This story is full of falsities and innuendo. I am appalled that you would even allow such a story to be posted publicly.
The inaccuracies in this story stem from emails and phone calls made by a Mr. Nelson Spear, who is a surrogate of my opponent Matt Rush in the Republican Primary for Commissioner of Public Lands.
Mr. Nelson Spear is no friend of mine as reported. We met through mutual activities within the ranks of the Republican Party in New Mexico and have had discussions about my candidacy for State Land Commissioner as his family has both ties to ranching and the energy industry in New Mexico. How Alexa can write Nelson has “been friends with Cornelius for the past five years” and then include quotes from Nelson disparaging my character doesn't jive with reality. Nelson has publicly supported my opponent and has for several weeks been actively trying to progress many of the fallacious things in which this story purports to be truth through emails and phone calls.
First of all, SFR did not write “Nelson has “been friends with Cornelius for the past five years.” SFR wrote: “Nelson Spear, an attorney and petroleum investor who says he's been friends with Cornelius for the past five years...” The difference, obviously, is that SFR reports their friendship not as fact, but as Spear's version of the story.
SFR did first hear of inconsistencies in Cornelius' campaign though Spear—though SFR contacted Spear, not vice versa, after hearing from a source that he had information about the land commission race. After receiving Cornelius' request for a retraction, SFR asked Spear to respond to the allegation that he is a surrogate for Matt Rush.
“That's not true,” Spear told SFR. “I may have casually met Matt Rush, but I think the first time I ever talked to him was in late April.” Spear acknowledged that he had begun endorsing Rush in late April or early May, and said he only did so “based on Bob's attitude of...not repenting of what I believe his lies are.”
“I am not a shill for Matt Rush,” Spear concluded. “In fact, I have given no money to any New Mexico Land Commissioner candidate.” SFR verified that Rush was not a contributor to Rush through the New Mexico Secretary of State's campaign finance information system.
Alexa asks “Is Petro Verde even a Company?” Yes it is! Petro Verde LLC is a start-up biogas company which has been active since June 2009. Paperwork was properly filed with the NM Public Regulation Commission. My partnership and participation within the company is to set up meetings with government officials in New Mexico and seek investors both in New Mexico and beyond. Alexa makes assumptions and jumps-to-conclusion that are beyond the pale. Many start-ups take time to get off the ground. We are less than a year old. In these tough economic times, sometimes investors are hard to come by. We have no building permits because we are not at the stage where anything is being built.
Alexa writes “Nobody's Heard of Petro Verde”. Again, false. In my participation with Petro Verde LLC, I have set up meetings with several government officials at different levels around New Mexico, including former Governor and ARRA Executive Director Toney Anaya, NMPRC Chairman David King, former Roswell Mayor Sam Legrone, former Roswell Chamber of Commerce President Kenneth Berry and Chaves County EDC Executive Director Robert Donnell. I also spoke by phone to former Lea County EDC Director Bethe Cunningham about the project before she left that position.
Toney Anaya's spokesman, Andy Lenderman, told SFR former Gov. Anaya “does not recollect any such meeting.” Lenderman also said he “couldn't find any record of” a meeting with Cornelius in Anaya's office. Cornelius maintains that the meeting did occur and “was a luncheon at the now defunct Mission Café.”
Through PRC spokesman Gerald Garner, David King confirmed that he met with Cornelius “in the last few months,” according to an e-mail Garner sent to SFR. “Cornelius apparently asked King to set up a meeting with former Gov. Toney Anaya to explore possibility of obtaining stimulus funds for the project,” Garner wrote on May 28. “Sorry it's not more substantive, but he confirmed that he had met with Cornelius re: Petro Verde.”
Former Roswell mayor Sam Lagrone told SFR his only meeting with Cornelius occurred “eight to 12 months ago.” As to whether he heard anything from Cornelius after that meeting, Lagrone said, “I sure didn't. that's the only meeting I ever had with the man, was right there. I really haven't even heard from Bob since that meeting.” Cornelius confirmed this in his May 30 e-mail to SFR, stating that “we determined at the time that Roswell did not meet the specifications for our company.”
Chaves County EDC Director Robert Donnell at first didn't recognize Cornelius' name, but after checking his notes confirmed to SFR that he and Kenneth Berry met with Cornelius once during a “very preliminary conversation” about biogas, but hadn't heard from him since. Cornelius confirmed this.
SFR could not reach Bethe Cunningham and requested contact information from Cornelius, who wrote in an e-mail: “Bethe is no longer the executive director of the Lea County EDC and is a private citizen. Therefore, I do not believe providing her personal contact information is necessary.”
I also set up meetings with elected officials in Clovis. Alexa again jumps to conclusions when she writes that Mayor Brumfield says “I do not remember meeting with [Cornelius] specifically.” Truth is she didn't meet with me specifically. There were at least seven people at the meeting when I proposed the Petro Verde biogas plant to the City of Clovis. In attendance at the meeting were Mayor Brumfield, myself, former Congressman Steve Stockman, Michael G. Horanburg, Clovis Industrial Development Corporation Director Chase Gentry, Extension Dairy Specialist Robert Hagevoort, and another employee from the Clovis CIDC. There were at least two other people who were in and out of the meeting, but I do not recall their names.
As first reported on May 19, Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield told SFR she did not recall meeting with Cornelius.
Former Texas congressman Steve Stockman, who is listed as an organizer on Petro Verde's PRC page, did not return multiple phone calls from SFR.
Michael Horanburg, who was working on another campaign before the election, told SFR he preferred to keep his name out of this story. Cornelius later confirmed that while Horanburg had attended one meeting, “he is not affiliated with Petro Verde, LLC.”
CIDC founder Gene Hendrick told SFR he and Chase Gentry met with Cornelius at “just the very beginning” of the biogas project. “[Cornelius] hasn't done a very good job of keeping us apprised of what's going on,” Hendrick told SFR. “This sounds like something we ought to be really on top of, but we're not.”
Robert Hagevoort tells SFR he doesn't recall a meeting with Cornelius but that “I don't want to say [it didn't happen]” because he's had numerous such meetings over the past year.
The same day I had a lunch meeting with Ashlee Stallings, who worked at Clovis Chamber of Commerce and helped facilitate the meeting mentioned above. I also had several email and phone conversations with Chase Gentry in regard to our selection of Clovis as our choice to locate the biogas plant.
Ashlee Stallings told SFR that she did speak with Cornelius about the biogas project once, several months ago, and that she had not heard from him since.
Hendrick told SFR that neither he nor Chase Gentry has “had any contact with [Cornelius] that we can recall since he visited. He sent a follow-up e-mail with four or five questions, which Chase answered and passed right back to him, and to my knowledge we've had no contact since then,” Hendrick told SFR.
Had Alexa done her job and not jumped to conclusions, this information is easily obtainable starting with the fact that she could have just asked me.
SFR attempted to reach Cornelius several times over the course of reporting and fact-checking this story. On May 30, he wrote in a subsequent e-mail (posted below), “The reason I have not returned your phone calls is because you take my vocal comments out of context.”
Alexa then attacks Steve Stockman and tries to tie events that took place in his political career to me. She writes “According to Cornelius, Stephen E. Stockman is the president of Petro Verde and a former Texas congressman. Like Cornelius, he's reputed to be a Baptist and a member of the National Rifle Association”. Reputed? I am a life-time member of the NRA and a member of the First Baptist Church of Tatum. The way she writes it makes it sound like I am lying or that I am neither a Baptist nor a member of the NRA. Is she calling my faith into question here? The fact that Steve is also a Baptist and a member of the NRA is irrelevant to me. I never worked on Steve's campaigns. I was not in charge of his fundraising. How this has any relevance to me is beyond belief. Alexa writes that the FEC “found reason to believe that Stockman violated the Campaign Act.” Again, not sure what that has to do with me, but Alexa doesn't say whether or not Steve was actually found guilty or fined. She just leads the reader to believe that Steve is a crook and knows Bob, making Bob a crook. Again, conjecture.
It does appear that Stockman was fined $40,000 by the FEC in his 1994 congressional race. It is hardly revolutionary to write about the backgrounds of people with whom candidates identify as their business associates. However, SFR did not intend to question Cornelius' faith or membership in the NRA; rather, this was a means of identifying that the information about Stockman's religion was unconfirmed since SFR was unable to reach him.
Alexa writes “Then there's Joey...Petro Verde's veep is one Joey Aragon. SFR couldn't reach him, either—but what's strange about Aragon is that Cornelius says he's never met him. One might hope he's not this Joey Aragon”. There's so many things wrong with this statement that I don't know where to begin, but let's start out by “One might hope he's not this Joey Aragon” and she links to some criminal record without verifying 1. Who is Joey Aragon? 2. What is his tie to Petro Verde 3. Is the criminal I am linking to on NMCourts.com actually the same guy that I am accusing of being linked to Bob Cornelius? This paragraph alone is enough reason not to have let this article hit print. Alexa again insinuates that I pal around with criminals, include them in business deals, and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Steve brought Joey on board. It was his decision because they had a previous acquaintance or working relationship. It makes sense to bring in local support to a company looking to locate in a certain area.
SFR removed the link to court records for a Joey Aragon on May 20 since we have been unable as yet to definitively confirm whether it is the same Joey Aragon. Aragon did not return phone calls, and Cornelius would not provide, when asked, additional contact information for Aragon.
If you feel I have not provided enough evidence and reason for an apology and retraction from Alexa, I will address further inaccuracies in Alexa's article.
This erroneous reporting and deceitful display by Alexa is no more than a hit piece on my character. My opponent is using your publication to further smear my reputation. I am asking for a complete retraction of the story and a public apology.
On May 30, Cornelius responded to SFR's additional questions in a second e-mail, posted below. SFR's questions to Cornelius are in bold.
The reason I have not returned your phone calls is because you take my vocal comments out of context. Your refusal to remove your slanted and innuendo filled online story makes me hesitant to answer any of the following questions. I only answer them in an attempt to keep you from continuing to misrepresent me in your articles. I want you and your employer to know that I have never been treated as unprofessionally and as rudely by any member of the press as I have been by you.
1) When did you last speak with Steve Stockman? When did you last speak with Joey Aragon? I spoke with Steve Stockman this past Thursday morning.
Neither Stockman nor Aragon returned SFR's calls requesting confirmation.
2) Does Petro Verde have a physical address, a PO box, a phone number or a bank account you can refer me to? Yes. Most of which you have asked for has been provided to you already. For future reference, please query Petro Verde, LLC on the NMPRC website as we are a registered LLC with the state of New Mexico.
Petro Verde's PRC listing contains only a street address. Neither a phone number nor a bank account was ever provided to SFR.
3) According to court records, there appears to be an outstanding warrant for you in Moriarty magistrate court, for driving under a revoked or suspended license (case # M-56-MR-200900266). Please explain. Again, this is another accusatory statement by you. I have never received any documentation in regard to the accusation you suggest in the above statement.
Officials from the Moriarty magistrate court confirmed the current warrant. And on June 7, S. U. Mahesh, the public information officer for the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division, wrote in an e-mail to SFR that Cornelius' record “shows his license is currently suspended and will remain suspended until he pays two tickets and then the reinstatement fee.”
4) In question #4, SFR asked Cornelius about an embezzlement, forgery and identity theft conviction of a person with the same name as one of his campaign associates. Cornelius responded that the person convicted is not the person on his campaign and then wrote: Making disparaging comments against me as a political candidate is one thing. Making accusatory statements and unfairly attacking my family is another. In the last several weeks you have questioned my faith, my integrity, my business, and now my family. Will you be questioning my gender and sexuality next?
SFR did not publish this information following Cornelius' response.
5) Former Gov. Toney Anaya said, through a spokesperson, that he has never met with you. Is this accurate? If not, please provide proof meeting minutes, recorded conversation, etc.) of your meeting with him. I believe you have spoken with PRC Chairman David King, who not only set up this meeting, was in attendance as well. Also, in attendance was Steve Stockmen. This meeting was a luncheon at the now defunct Mission Café.
As stated above, former Gov. Anaya denied having met with Cornelius. David King confirmed through a spokesman that he met with Cornelius, who asked him to set up a meeting with Anaya.
6) Former PRC Chair David King has not yet responded. Do you have any proof of your meeting with him? First of all, David King is the current Chairman of the PRC. Second, Commissioner King mentioned to me he had already spoken with you on these matters. Additionally, the last time I saw David King was at church this morning.
Cornelius is correct; at the time of this e-mail, David King was still the PRC chair. But SFR never spoke with David King; all correspondence was limited to PRC public information officer Gerald Garner.
7) Former Roswell mayor Sam Lagrone says he met with you once, 8 to 12 months ago, but hasn't heard from you since. Is this true? Yes. After meeting with the former Mayor and others, we determined at the time that Roswell did not meet the specifications for our company. Therefore, no further communication was needed. We are open to looking at Roswell in the future.
Again, SFR's May 19 post was looking at what the basis is for Cornelius' campaign claims that Petro Verde “will create hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in annual revenue for the city of Clovis.” Cornelius cited his meeting with Lagrone as part of his response to SFR's question about the company's status.
8) Chaves County EDC director Robert Donnell says he and Kenneth Berry met with you once, about a year ago, and haven't heard from you since. Is this true? Yes. We discussed the possibility of Roswell as the location of the biogas plant. We determined at the time that Roswell did not meet the specifications for our company. Therefore, no further communication was needed. We are open to looking at Roswell in the future.
See above response.
9) I was unable to reach Bethe Cunningham. Do you have a number or email for her? I believe you have been provided with substantial information in regard to meetings our company has held with several local and state officials. Bethe is no longer the Executive Director of the Lea County EDC and is a private citizen. Therefore, I do not believe providing her personal contact information is necessary.
SFR was unable to contact Cunningham.
10) Michael Horanburg says he met with you, Steve Stockman and the mayor of Clovis last summer (either July or August). He said he has had “off and on” conversations with you about the project, but has not spoken with you about it recently. Is this accurate? Yes. Though Michael did join in on our initial meeting in Clovis, he is not affiliated with Petro Verde, LLC.
Horanburg confirmed meeting with Cornelius once (see above).
11) Gene Hendrick, the founder of the Clovis Industrial Development Corporation, says he and Chase Gentry met with you last summer. He says you then sent a follow-up email, to which Mr. Gentry responded, but that they have had no contact with you since then. Is this correct? Yes. After meeting with Clovis officials, we decided to locate our business there.
Again, Cornelius' campaign mentioned that Petro Verde “will create hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in annual revenue for the city of Clovis.”
Hendrick says two e-mails were the only exchange the CIDC had with Cornelius. Further, according to Hendrick, CIDC is the area's primary economic development organization.
“If [Cornelius is] not talking to Chase, I don't know who they'd talk to here,” Hendrick tells SFR. “We'd normally jump right in the middle of things. We don't leave many stones unturned; believe me.”
12) Robert Hagevoort says he cannot remember whether or not he met with you because he's had many meetings about biodigesters for the dairy industry. Can you provide any proof of your meeting with him? Mr. Hagevoort attended our meeting with the Clovis mayor and the Clovis IDC. I am sure Mr. Hendrick and Mr. Gentry can attest to that.
As posted above, Hendrick told SFR that neither he nor Chase Gentry has “had any contact with [Cornelius] that we can recall since he visited. He sent a follow-up e-mail with four or five questions, which Chase answered and passed right back to him, and to my knowledge we've had no contact since then,” Hendrick told SFR. Hendrick said a dairy expert attended the meeting but could not verify that it was Hagevoort.
13) I was unable to reach Ashlee Stallings. Do you have phone or email contact information for her? Ashlee no longer works for the Clovis Chamber of Commerce. You have determined through both my statements and others that these meetings have taken place. I do not feel providing her personal information adds to those statements.
SFR later reached Stallings, who replied that she'd had one meeting with Cornelius.
14) Nelson Spear says he is not a surrogate for Matt Rush; that he only began supporting Mr. Rush after confronting you about what he alleges were problems with your campaign around April 22. He says he warned you that if you were not “repentant,” he would then support Mr. Rush. To your knowledge, is this accurate? So, which is it? Is he a surrogate or just a supporter? I'm not quite sure what the difference is between the two when that someone openly attacks me and my candidacy and openly admits to supporting my opponent. I received an irrational phone call from Mr. Spear in which he demanded I repent of my sins. When I asked him to clarify on which sins I should be repentant, he refused to specify. Mr. Spear then began a malicious email campaign attacking my character, much of which you have used to create the foundation of your blog post.
SFR never used an e-mail from Spear as the foundation of any blog post. SFR initiated contact with Spear and interviewed him several times subsequently over the phone.
15) Can you also confirm or deny ENMU's statement that you did not graduate? Thanks. I want to thank you for bringing this clerical error to my attention. Upon contacting ENMU and having them look into the matter, it was determined that I have indeed completed the necessary coursework for my degree. However, some of the clerical documentation for my graduation had not been completed. I have been in contact with both the Records Clerk and the Registrar's office at ENMU. I will be meeting with the ENMU Vice President of Academic Affairs to resolve this. I would like to point out that I have been invited to and participated in several ENMU Alumni Association events, including our 75th Anniversary Picnic. Having done so, I assumed that all the documentation was in order.
ENMU Registrar Crystal Creekmore told SFR that Cornelius did not graduate but, citing Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) rules, would not confirm that she had been in contact with Cornelius.