I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Bill Richardson has long been ‘good to his friends’
Gov. Bill Richardson admitted in his 2005 autobiography to giving a state job to a man because the man’s father had helped him in a congressional campaign years earlier. And he told a journalist in 2007 that he remembers people who give him campaign contributions and thinks about ways to help them.
Under our laws, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. The system is set up to allow political appointments to taxpayer-funded jobs. And, unless there’s a quid pro quo, there’s not necessarily anything illegal about a politician using his clout to help a contributor.
But such admissions from Richardson provide insight into how a man whose administration is currently dogged by pay-to-play allegations — and a man who is arguably the most powerful politician in the state’s history — plays the political game.
Richardson is currently facing two separate pay-to-play controversies. The first involves a federal grand jury investigating allegations that a California company received a state investment contract that paid almost $1.5 million in exchange for $110,000 in contributions to two Richardson political action committees and his 2006 gubernatorial re-election campaign.
In the second case, a lawsuit alleges that the state lost $90 million in investment deals made in exchange for a little more than $15,000 in contributions to Richardson’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Richardson’s office declined a request for an interview for this article, but former House Minority Whip, and NMI contributor, Dan Foley said in an interview that it’s unfair to try to tie or compare the pay-to-play allegations to Richardson’s decision to give a state job to the son of a man who helped him on a campaign.
“I think saying that a guy helped me on my campaign so I helped his son get a job — that’s politics. That’s different than saying that you give $250,000 and you get a big contract,” Foley said.
“Politics is a relationship business. You try to surround yourself with people you trust. You try to surround yourself with people you believe in, and who better than the people who were there in the beginning?”
But one New Mexico political operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Richardson’s earlier admissions raise suspicion.
“If he’s willing to admit to giving a taxpayer-funded job as a political ‘thank you,’ and if he’s willing to admit to thinking about how he can help people who give to his campaign, what is he doing that he’s not admitting?” the operative asked.
A climate ripe for pay-to-play politics
It was in a 2007 interview with CNBC that Richardson acknowledged that giving money to a politician does give the donor “a little bit of an edge. …
“I don’t give any extra access to somebody that contributes,” Richardson said. “But I’ll remember that person, and I’ll say, ‘Jeez, that guy helped me. Maybe I can help them.’”
And it was in his 2005 autobiography, “Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life,” that Richardson recounted giving a state job to the son of Donaldo “Tiny” Martinez, an influential Hispanic activist in northern New Mexico whose support of Richardson’s 1980 run for the 1st Congressional District seat gave his campaign a big boost. Richardson ended up losing to an incumbent Republican by about 1,000 votes that year, but two years later, he won the newly created 3rd District seat.
“More than two decades later, Martinez’s son applied for a state job,” Richardson wrote in his book. “I talked to him and he told me his credentials. He was as qualified as the other candidates. I told him he was getting the job because he was his father’s son and because his father did a fine thing for me many years ago.”
Many politicos who declined to speak on the record for this article pointed to stories like that — and the volume of news articles throughout Richardson’s tenure about campaign contributors getting state contracts or appointments to boards and commissions — as evidence that Richardson has for years engaged in pay-to-play politics.
It’s Richardson’s behind-the-scenes political maneuverings, the anonymous political operative said, that keep many from speaking for the record about the allegations.
“Everybody knows that Bill Richardson is good to his friends,” the operative said. “And on the flip side, everybody knows that he can be very vindictive if you cross him. Examine his line-item vetoes for Democrat legislators versus Republicans, and it becomes obvious. So the reason no one is willing to go on the record about many of these allegations … is he’s still a very powerful person and is willing to use that power to hurt people if they speak ill of him.”
Jose Z. Garcia, a New Mexico State University (NMSU) government professor and active Democrat, wrote in a recent column published on this reporter’s blog that the combination of Richardson’s “bullying style” and the fact that he “elevated fundraising to an art form,” raising unprecedented amounts of money in New Mexico, created a climate ripe for pay-to-play politics.
“There were fundraisers in-state, out-of-state, big ones, little ones, fat ones, skinny ones. And people doing business or wanting to do business with the state were at least as encouraged to contribute as anyone else, and probably more,” wrote Garcia, a Richardson appointee to the New Mexico Border Authority until his term expired in 2006.
“Fundraisers received appointments to powerful positions on boards and commissions and in other ways appeared to receive a great deal of face time with Big Bill.”
The examples are many
In addition to the allegations at the center of the federal probe and the lawsuit, the examples of campaign contributors winning state contracts are many:
• The bank Northern Trust has handled billions of dollars in state assets since being hired in 2003. Meanwhile, the company and its executives have given more than $45,000 to Richardson’s campaigns and PACs.
• A Los Angeles-based public relations firm won a $140,000 annual state contract in 2006, and in 2007 its employees contributed almost $10,000 to Richardson’s presidential campaign.
• Paul Blanchard, the president of the Downs at Albuquerque, served as finance chairman on Richardson’s 2006 re-election campaign, and he and his wife have donated $300,000 to Richardson’s gubernatorial campaigns, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, Blanchard does a lot of business with the state, including the approval in May by the State Racing Commission, whose board members are appointed by Richardson, of what the Times called “a controversial request from Mr. Blanchard to move the racetrack off the fairgrounds to the city of Moriarty and expand its casino operation.”
• A California developer gave $75,000 to Richardson’s 2006 re-election campaign and donated use of his personal jet to the governor. Meanwhile, Richardson helped secure approval of state funding totaling $4 million for an interchange on Interstate 25 in Belen that is going to vastly improve access to the developer’s 6,000-acre development.
• ValueOptions won a lucrative state contract in 2005 to manage mental-health and substance-abuse services for the state. People tied to the company donated at least $25,000 to Richardson campaigns, and the chairman of the company held a fundraiser for Richardson’s presidential campaign. However, ValueOptions lost the state contract last month to another company. People tied to the new holder of that contract also gave big to Richardson campaigns.
• Santa Fe art dealer and developer Gerald Peters contributed well over $100,000 to the governor’s campaigns, let Richardson use his jet for political trips and held a fundraiser for his presidential campaign. Richardson made Peters a vice chair of his task force on higher education in 2004. In 2006, Peters was awarded a contract to rebuild the state Department of Transportation headquarters in Santa Fe in exchange for the right to use the remainder of the DOT property to develop commercial and residential buildings for his own profit. The project was terminated amid controversy surrounding how Peters won the contract and the project’s ties to defendants in the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse scandal.
‘Let this investigation run its course’
Richardson has repeatedly said that there’s no connection between donations and contracts, despite what he told CNBC about his tendency to consider helping campaign contributors.
“There’s no connection between donations and what happens in state government,” Richardson said at a 2007 news conference related to the DOT controversy. “That’s always been an established principle.”
Foley acknowledged that some of Richardson’s actions may be questionable, but said it’s not clear that Richardson or any member of his staff has done anything illegal.
In addition to being an influential former legislator, Foley is an insurance agent who gets a 10 percent commission on all policies sold under Allstate’s contract to provide supplemental insurance to state employees. He said he has never experienced Richardson as threatening or bullying and said the governor has “never asked me for a penny.”
Foley said he’s confident that the federal probe will determine whether there was any impropriety.
“You give us a check and you get the contract — If that was said, it’ll come out and they should get in trouble. That’s wrong,” Foley said. “[But] I think the people of New Mexico should sit back and let this investigation run its course.”