For the past three weeks, revelations that staffers in Gov. Susana Martinez’ office were using private email addresses to discuss state policy have hit the headlines, alarming open-government advocates and giving liberals ammunition to lob at the Republican administration and its top-level advisor, Jay McCleskey.
The most recently leaked emails involve top Republican attorney Pat Rogers, who serves as a board member of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a nonprofit dedicated to government transparency. Throughout the entire scandal, NMFOG has been a leading critic of the practice of using private email accounts to conduct public business.
On June 16, Executive Director Gwyneth Doland and five other NMFOG members met with Martinez, two of her staffers and two staff attorneys to discuss the matter. Afterward, Martinez set a new policy banning state employees from conducting public business on private email accounts, one Doland called “a huge step forward for government transparency.”
But the revelation that Rogers himself had participated in the scandal puts NMFOG in a complicated spot. To some, Rogers’ association with NMFOG undermines the nonprofit’s mission of transparency.
“He is someone who has showed up repeatedly in meetings lobbying on behalf of legislation that FOG has supported,” state Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, tells SFR. “He should know it is not appropriate to do state business on private email accounts.”
On June 26, the liberal Independent Source PAC released three private emails from Rogers to Martinez’ deputy chief of staff, Ryan Cangiolosi. The subject of the emails, dating from September to November 2011, involved a 25-year lease extension for an upgraded State Fair racino, at an estimated cost of $20 million to build and expected to bring in $1.75 billion over the lease’s lifetime.
At the time, the Downs at Albuquerque had been operating the racino—which today remains in a degraded condition—for 25 years. Rogers was their attorney.
“Larry Kennedy needs to lock down Bitsui,” reads one email Rogers sent to Cangiolosi and McCleskey on Nov. 1, 2011.
Kennedy and Ruth Bitsui are state fair commissioners—members of the body slated to vote on who got the lease. Three weeks later, both joined David “Hossie” Sanchez and Kenneth “Buster” Goff in narrowly awarding the lease to the Downs by a 4-3 vote (Laguna Housing Development was the only other bidder).
The governor’s office, which declined to comment for this story, has maintained that the emails were illegally hacked and that Cangiolosi never received them. But State Fair Commissioner Charlotte Rode, R-Albuquerque, says she believes the communications were in violation of state procurement code.
While state fair commissioners had the final say in determining which company was awarded the lease, Rode and others maintain that Rogers and the governor’s office orchestrated the deal from the get-go.
Shareholders and staffers of the Downs have contributed to the governor’s political campaigns. In total, they gave more than $75,000 directly to Martinez between June 2010 and January 2011. They also gave an additional $10,000 to Susana PAC, which McCleskey operates, between May and July 2011.
Other leaked emails between Rogers and Cangiolosi show disdain for Rode, the most vocal opponent of awarding the lease extension to the Downs.
In a message titled “dragon lady,” Rogers criticizes Rode for copying Albuquerque Journal reporter Charles Brunt on an email to state fair (officially called Expo New Mexico) General Manager Dan Mourning demanding a meeting.
“I need 5 minutes of your time, quickly, this am, now,” Rogers wrote in the email to Cangiolosi and McCleskey on Oct. 31. Rogers declined to comment for this story.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Rode, referring to the private emails, tells SFR. “It was obvious through this whole thing that the [Martinez] administration, Pat Rogers, [lobbyist] Mickey Barnett and the Downs were all partners. They behaved, they spoke like, they communicated like [and] they negotiated like partners. There was no separation of authority.”
While ISPAC maintains the deal was a pay-to-play conspiracy, others say it indicates a sloppy state agency with no oversight.
“For a long time, the State Fair has operated as a stand-alone enterprise exclusively overseen by the office of the governor,” state Sen. Tim Keller, D-Bernalillo, who represents part of the area, tells SFR.
Last October, the Legislative Finance Committee released an extensive report that found the State Fair “operationally insolvent” with a lack of oversight resulting in “contract irregularities and inadequate cash controls.” Keller unsuccessfully carried a bill addressing these problems during the 2012 legislative session.
Now, outside entities are starting to investigate the Downs deal. On June 26, the same day the Downs-related emails leaked, Rode met with State Auditor Hector Balderas.
“She came in and expressed some of her concerns and provided documentation,” Antonio Corrales, director of operations and compliance at the Office of the State Auditor, tells SFR.
Corrales adds that the probe is still in its infancy. Doland, McCleskey and Expo New Mexico didn’t comment for this story before press time. But as construction commences on the racino and the Downs prepares to bring in an estimated $70 million each year once the renovation is complete, state employees—and those like McCleskey and Rogers who work with them—may have to re-evaluate the way they use their private email accounts.
“If [Rogers] believed in the concept that FOG says they stand for, he wouldn’t have been doing this,” vocal Downs critic and state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, tells SFR.