Giant in the Dark

A secret tape reveals how the governor's top staffer runs government

It was Oct. 14, 2011, and Keith Gardner was tired.

As Gov. Susana Martinez' chief of staff, Gardner is arguably the second most powerful person in state government. The contentious legislative special session dedicated to redistricting—redrawing the state's political boundaries—had just ended, and Gardner was back in Roswell, where he got his start in politics.

"The special session kicked my ass. I hate those fuckers," Gardner confided to Brian Powell, an old friend and the EMS division chief for the Roswell Fire Department. "I hate fucking Tim Jennings so bad right now," he added, referring to the Democratic president pro tem of the New Mexico Senate. "Oh god, I hate him. He's a cocksucking son of a bitch…So, how you been?"

Gardner was in Roswell on personal business: to deal with allegations that a teacher at the local high school engaged in fourth-degree criminal sexual contact with a minor. The case affected both men: Gardner's close relative was a witness, and Powell's daughter was the alleged victim.

Gardner offered condolences and support—and even offered to help Powell find a government job far away from Roswell. (Moving his family to Santa Fe, Gardner told him, was "the best move we ever made.") He described a walk on the beach in Acapulco with state Public Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera, in which he said he told her that Powell's relative "is like my kid."

"'I don't give a fuck what goes on in the trial—if that cocksucker gets back in the classroom, you, as an education secretary, have failed the kids of New Mexico,'" Gardner said he told Skandera.

Radio dispatches crackled in the background. And somewhere in the room, an audio recorder lay concealed, catching every word in the frank conversation that lasted over an hour. Powell later said in a statement that he secretly recorded the conversation because he "had reason to believe Mr. Gardner might be motivated to prevent crucial testimony by a witness at an upcoming preliminary hearing."

It's not clear that Powell was referring to Gardner's relative, but in the recording, Gardner says he advised the relative to tell the truth—no matter the consequences.

The audio recording reveals a side of Gardner rarely, if ever, seen publicly. Over the course of the recording, Gardner establishes himself as the quintessential power broker: a big-talking man highly conscious of his influence, who isn't afraid to "play the game" and leverage that influence into high-profile state positions for friends.

"I don't give a shit about your expertise," Gardner told Powell. "My job is to run the day-to-day operations of state government. I've never carried a gun, but yeah—the secretary of [the Department of Public Safety] answers to me. I've never been in a jail…but the secretary of corrections answers to me. I'm not a doctor, but the secretary of health answers to me. We need people that can manage people and know how to improve people—not that other shit."

Neither Gardner nor the governor's office responded to SFR's requests to comment on the recording, besides issuing a short statement confirming the conversation dealt with the sex offense case and blasting the man who released it: Sam Bregman, a Democratic lawyer reportedly considering a 2014 gubernatorial run.

"It is sad and shameless that Sam Bregman would manipulate a client to further his own political ambitions," reads the prepared statement from Martinez spokesman Greg Blair.

Growing into the 'Gentle Giant'
Keith Gardner grew up a fair-haired boy from Reserve—the capital of Catron County, a sprawling, sparsely populated southwestern county. In the recording, he recalls Britt Snyder, now a lieutenant at the Chaves County Sheriff's Department, pulling him over "about 20-some years ago in Reserve."

"I like Britt," Gardner told Powell. "We get along fine. But that son of a bitch, he was a new cop and he pulled me over…My dad was a judge. I was like, 'Britt, write me the fucking ticket or leave me alone…You know, if you write the ticket, I'm going to get it dismissed because my dad is a judge.'"

"Worthless as tits on a boar hog," Gardner joked of Snyder to Powell. Snyder tells SFR he doesn't recall pulling him over, but if he did, Gardner would never have addressed a police officer in the tone he described to Powell.

Snyder, who went to school with Gardner's older brother, recalls Gardner's mother being a postmaster while his parents ran the only hardware store in town. He still "considers Keith and his family [friends] of mine," and says of the boar hog remark that Gardner was "just bein' silly."

"I think Keith is very good people to say the least," Snyder says. "And we were glad the governor put him in that position. We like to know that there's somebody we can call if we have issues."

Gardner, a Mormon, says in the recording that the incident happened just before he left for a two-year mission in Spain. He later returned and started a life in Roswell, where he's known as a devoted family man with a strong faith in God.

In the '90s, Gardner and a partner established Sprint Sports Rehabilitation Inc. in Roswell. Between 2010 and 2011, the clinic received at least $242,000 in contracts from the New Mexico Department of Health for professional services. One contract was amended to deliver another $100,000 in taxpayer money to the clinic just before Gardner started serving as Martinez' chief of staff.

The clinic also ran a strength conditioning program for young athletes, says William Cavin, former chairman of the Republican Party of Chaves County. Cavin has known Gardner since the days their sons sweated it out on the dusty gridiron. Gardner was the football coach.

"Keith had an outstanding reputation in Roswell," Cavin says. "Very strong family man—very strong leader."

Somewhere along the way, Gardner earned the nickname "the gentle giant"—a reflection of his affable bearing and towering frame. In 2002, he threw his name in the hat in the Republican primary for state representative in Dist. 66, a GOP stronghold in southeastern New Mexico. He lost  in the primary to incumbent Earlene Roberts, but beat her in the 2004 primary and ran unopposed in the general election.

But in 2006, he faced opposition from Republican Lucille Tucker, a retired schoolteacher with no political experience who ran to reform education and because she was "against the corruption" of the "big Republicans who thought they ran the show."

Gardner sued to get Tucker off the ballot. With little money, she took her case to the New Mexico Supreme Court and won the legal battle but lost the Republican nomination. The experience left Tucker, a Martinez supporter, disenchanted.

"Why in the world would an incumbent take someone—a retired teacher—that far just to take 'em off the ballot?" she says. "Why would you do that?"

In the next two general elections, Gardner ran unopposed. He quickly rose to the position of House minority whip, working on bills that would require driver's license applicants to be US citizens, expand webcasting of legislative hearings and reshape the state's health care policies—all of which later became key Martinez administration issues.

Gardner's colleagues respected him. State Rep. Dennis Kintigh, R-Chaves, remembers that Gardner always made a point to approach fellow lawmakers, saying he "has never met a stranger, I'm convinced of that."

"He'll kiss ladies' hands and do other funny things," Kintigh recalls. "He made a point to talk to everybody."

Even Jennings recalls a similar camaraderie with Gardner, whose kids once left Post-It notes in his office. The Chaves County Democrat says he was friendly with Gardner's family and helped the up-and-coming politician on personal and political issues.

But in addition to his own disparaging comments about Jennings, Gardner also told Powell that Gov. Martinez "hates Tim Jennings."

"Is that because of the redistricting stuff?" Powell asked.

"[That,] and he's just being an asshole," Gardner replied. "A fucking prick. I mean, a total prick." He also told Powell that Republicans were planning to run someone against Jennings in the 2012 election.

Jennings tells SFR he doesn't know what he did to "deserve that" but recalls fighting with the administration over the questionable, multimillion-dollar lease awarded to the Downs of Albuquerque, which Jennings opposed [cover story, Aug. 22: "Trouble at the Ol' Racino"].

"That's what happens when politics goes in the gutter," Jennings says of Gardner's comments. "Power does a lot of things to people."

Gardner, in the recording, goes on to shed light on how the governor's office raises money. That September, the Martinez administration was criticized for taking $60,000 in unsolicited donations for her campaign and $13,000 for her political action committee during the special legislative session. Under law, public officeholders are prevented from soliciting donations during sessions.

"We can't legally ask," Gardner says in the recording. Then he laughs. "What they haven't figured out yet is, we sent the solicitation out two days before the prohibitive period started."

"But hey, it's legal," Powell responded.

Gardner agreed, bemoaning criticism from Democrats who argued otherwise.

"We're smarter than they are," he said. "It's like, what are you so pissed off about? We're smarter than you are! We're playing the game better than you guys are. Just play the game!"

'I don't want to go to court or jail'
In discussing the case that affected both of their families, Powell mentioned that some evidence consisted of Facebook communications.

"That's all discoverable evidence," Gardner said. "We have gone in [and] actually and forensically pulled, just pulled computers right off people's desks," he added.

"People looking at nasty sites, or…?" Powell asked.

"That, or just emails they shouldn't be sending," Gardner said. "And see, that's all discoverable. That's why I never email on my state email anything that can come back to bite my ass. It's all done offline. I never—shit, I never use my state email because it is all done on different stuff  'cause I don't want to go to court or jail."

That comment apparently prompted Powell to release the recording through Bregman, the Albuquerque attorney and Democrat who is also representing former Department of Corrections official Larry Flynn in a wrongful termination case against the state. Since Flynn's case relates to public officials' use of private email to conduct state business, Powell said in a statement that he felt the recording was relevant.

Last week, Bregman released a 24-second version of the recording, including Gardner's quote about using private email. After the administration claimed the snippet was taken out of context, Bregman released the entire conversation to media outlets.

"The recording makes clear why Bregman hid the context from the press," Gardner's statement from last week reads. "It discredits him as a lawyer, a politician and a man." 

Benefits for Friends
As they discussed the upcoming preliminary hearing, Powell talked about how unhappy he was in Roswell.

"This town is evil, and I don't feel comfortable here," he told Gardner. "We go out of town, and we come in and I see the lights…I don't want to be here."

"Well, let me find something for you," Gardner replied. "I'm going to find something for you."

Gardner came under fire last year when the Public Education Department hired his wife Stephanie, then a middle school teacher and math department head, as the new National Assessment of Educational Progress coordinator. (Today, both Gardners make more than the midpoint salaries for their respective positions. Stephanie Gardner's $65,000-a-year job is nearly $12,000 above the usual pay for its category, according to information published by the governor's office; at a fraction of a cent under $135,000, Keith Gardner's is around $4,000 above what a chief of staff usually makes.) On the same day Gardner met with Powell, an Albuquerque Journal editorial questioned whether Gardner's wife got a position that "was tailored to her."

"You'll be in the paper once they find out we're friends," Gardner told Powell. "But that's OK. I don't give a shit."

He explained how people criticized his hiring of "my friend" Aimee Barabe, then a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, as political.

"I mean, why can't I put people in there that I trust?" Gardner asks Powell. "That's what my job is, to surround [Martinez] with people that won't fuck up and make her look—"

Powell interrupted: "Not go out of their way to sabotage her."

Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, draws a fine line in the way that people in high positions offer jobs to their friends.

"It's one thing to say, 'Hey, here's a job you're qualified for. I'll give you the information and be your reference,'" Harrison tells SFR. "On the flip side is, 'I can get you a job. Tell me which one you prefer.' And that does cross the line."

Such cronyism, she says, occurs in many forms of government across the country.

Gardner followed through with helping set Powell up with a job. Two emails obtained by SFR show high-level state officials letting Powell know about state jobs that might fit his qualifications. In one, sent on Nov. 28, 2011, Michael Duvall, then the secretary of the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, tells Powell that a job was opening up and that Gardner had already sent him Powell's résumé.

Powell replies that he doesn't plan to apply, saying people already working in the department were more qualified and "would be more capable in this position."

In another email, dated Jan. 3, 2012, with the title "Interest for high-level position for Governor Martinez," the cabinet director for the governor's office, David Jablonski, writes to Powell that high-level positions are open in the Children, Youth and Families Department.

As their conversation drew to a close, Gardner reiterated his promise that he'd get Powell out of Roswell by helping find him a job elsewhere.

"Alright, well let me see what I can do," Gardner said. "I'll get serious."

"If you've got the time," Powell added.

"Dude, that's what I do," Gardner said. "That's what I really do."

Right before he left the room, Gardner's phone rang.

"Political guy freaking out," he told Powell before answering it.

As Gardner left, Powell whispered, "Thanks, brother."

For a brief moment, Gardner put the phone on hold to address his old friend.

"Hang in there, brother," he told Powell. "Anything you need, just call me."

As Gardner walked away, his voice grew distant. Powell promptly went to the hidden recorder and turned it off.

According to his statement, Powell, a Republican, immediately turned the secret recording over to the district attorney prosecuting the sex offense case. Powell said he released the recorded conversation to the public through Bregman because he believed it was the "right thing, the honest thing, to do."

“The Gardner Tapes”

The day before this story went to print, Albuquerque blogger Joe Monahan wrote a post detailing the content of Powell’s recording and providing links to the full audio, with names redacted. SFR opted not to release the full audio in order to avoid exposing the identities of certain people involved in the sex offense case concerning former Goddard High School teacher David Lawrence. While the Martinez administration has said that the release of the recording is politically motivated, SFR maintains that certain aspects provide a rare window into the inner workings of that administration and one of its most powerful members, Chief of Staff Keith Gardner.

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