Thursday, September 06, 2007

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: CONTRIBUTIONS & CONTRACTS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 6, 2007


Supporters of Attorney General Gary King are hosting a fundraiser next week to help King pay off some of his $430,000 debt from the 2006 campaign. For a suggested $1,000 contribution, those attending will get a Mexican buffet, mariachi music and a chance to meet lawyers who recently won a contract to perform legal work for the AG’s office.

Two of the co-hosts of the Tuesday event at the Albuquerque Country Club, Turner and Margaret Branch, are members of the Branch Law Firm of Albuquerque, which recently won a contract through King’s office for a case involving unpaid royalties to the state Land Office.

The Branch firm also is working with another firm through another AG’s contract on a securities fraud case, King confirmed. That contract was issued in 2004, three years before King took office.

Under the terms of both contracts, the law firm gets a percentage of any money the state is awarded. King said Wednesday the percentage is somewhere in the 12 to 16 percent range in each contract.

It seems lately these kind of stories are becoming more frequent. The news of this fundraiser comes on the heels of the news that Santa Fe businessman Gerald Peters hosted a fundraiser in Wyoming for Gov. Bill Richardson, while a Peters business was negotiating with the state over a contract to build a new Department of Transportation headquarters in Santa Fe. Richardson’s office announced last week the state would rebid the DOT project.

King on Wednesday told me he didn’t see any impropriety or even appearance of impropriety with having the Branches co-host a fundraising event for him.

“Turner has been a friend of my family’s for years,” King said of the former Republican legislator. “I don’t see why he should be precluded as a supporter because he has contracts.”

Previous contributions: The Branches last year contributed a total of $7,838 to King’s campaign, according to Followthemoney.org, the online database of the Institute of Money in State Politics. However, they also contributed $5,500 to one of King’s primary opponents, lawyer Geno Zamora.

The Branches also contributed to other state candidates, including $23,300 to Gov. Bill Richardson and $15,000 to State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons.

This isn’t the first time the Branch firm’s name has come up regarding state contracts, campaign contributions and the Attorney General’s Office. In 2002, then Attorney General Patricia Madrid was criticized for awarding a contract to the firm after receiving tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from the Branches.

King on Wednesday noted he supports doing away with the current campaign finance system and going to a publicly funded system.

“But this is the system we have now, and the law doesn’t prohibit this,” King added. He said he didn’t take any contributions from any contractor during a bidding process — which would be prohibited under state law.

The other co-hosts: The other couple whose name appears on the invitation to the King fundraiser are Ambassador Ed Romero and his wife, Tanna.

King said he worked for Ed Romero — also known as a longtime supporter of Richardson — between 1990 and 1998.

Viva la Fiesta!: If you need to go to a state office Friday afternoon, good luck.
As has been the case for the better part of who knows how many decades, state employees are allowed to take half a day off to enjoy the Santa Fe Fiesta.

“In recognition of upcoming fall season events here in New Mexico, Governor Richardson has authorized four hours of administrative leave for executive branch state employees to participate in local community events,” Richardson spokeswoman Caitlin Kelleher said Wednesday.
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Employees don’t have to take this Friday off, however. They can use the time anytime between Friday and Oct. 14, Kelleher said. That way, they could choose to go to the state fair or the balloon fiesta in Albuquerque or the Whole Enchilada Festival in Las Cruces.

So how much will this whole enchilada cost taxpayers?

According to state personnel statistics, classified state employees make an average salary of $40,233. That translates to about $77.12 for four hours. Multiply that by 19,402 classified employees in the state and you get nearly $1.5 million.

That seems like a lot, but it still isn’t as much as the $2 million figure used in the 1990s by Gov. Gary Johnson’s administration, which suspended the half-day-off practice for several years.

Besides, if state employees spend a lot of cash on Navajo tacos, burritos, corn on the cob and funnel cakes at these events during their four-hour break — and all those vendors pay their taxes — the state just might break even.

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