Gov. Susana Martinez lobbied top Democrats to approve a bill that would have created an exception to regulations about leases for state offices. Now some Democrats are calling for an investigation of what they call pay-to-play.
Andrew Oxford reported the story for The Santa Fe New Mexican. He spoke with KUNM's Chris Boros.
Oxford: These are two towers at the corner of San Mateo and Central. In fact, one of these used to be the tallest building in Albuquerque – it was the Bank of the West building. In recent years, the primary tenants, as far as I can tell, have been state agencies and that includes the Children Youth and Families Department. They’ve been looking for some sort of new arrangement. They’ve looked to buy a building, that didn’t work out. They’ve looked to lease another building; they say that would be too expensive. And the reason they’ve taken it to the legislature is because state rules say that agencies aren’t supposed to rent a space for more than twenty years. It’s a pretty standard measure. And although the state can waive those rules on its own - the department could get a waiver without going to the legislature - they’ve put forward this bill that rather unusually would create a carve out for just this property and it would allow other state agencies in the same office building to extend their leases beyond this twenty year limit.
KUNM: How did the governor get involved with this?
Oxford: The governor’s office says that getting the Children Youth and Families Department a better facility has been a priority for her – that she’s been involved in this process because the Children Youth and Families Department has made it clear they have a need. That’s what they say. We found that the owners of this property – or at least two of the owners of this property – have donated upwards of $26,000 to her reelection campaign or her political action committee since 2014. A spokesman for the governor has said that she’s never – her staff hasn’t talked to the owners about this lease. She doesn’t recall meeting with these people. I had asked for any logs from her office that might show meeting with these landlords and they say that they don’t have any such records.
KUNM: And she talked to State Senator Neville about carrying the bill, right?
Oxford: From what I understand it was the cabinet secretary for the Children Youth and Families Department, Monique Jacobson, and the cabinet secretary for the General Services Department which handles real estate and that kind of stuff for the state, Ed Burckle, who approached Neville about carrying this bill.
KUNM: But then Senator Neville withdrew the bill over the weekend. Why did he say that he had to do that?
Oxford: So in committee hearings on this legislation, Neville had said that there were no significant political contributions of any kind. He then said that on Saturday morning he was made aware that in fact these property owners had donated money to the governor’s campaign and her PAC and he asked to withdraw the bill because he said he mislead his colleagues.
KUNM: It sounds like this could be an embarrassing thing for a lawmaker. Does this happen often?
Oxford: It was definitely an extraordinary floor session with the Senator brought this up. But what was interesting too was that lawmakers didn’t point a finger at Neville. They really cast blame on the governor’s office. There are Senators – Senator Michael Padilla from Albuquerque for example is saying he wants the Senate Rules Committee to investigate this. So Neville seems to have the confidence of his colleges but there are still a lot of lawmakers who have a lot questions.
KUNM: So what’s next? Do you think there will be an investigation?
Oxford: It’s really hard to tell. I don’t know. It’s the sort of thing that we’ll just have to wait and see.
The People, Power and Democracy project examines ethics, transparency and accountability in state government. The project is funded by the Thornburg Foundation and by contributions from KUNM listeners.