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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Political Timing Forsakes Big Bill; What Happened? Plus: Media In Key Role In Guv's Cabinet Nomination; The Latest Maneuvers 

Bill Richardson has always had exquisite political timing--until now--and when he needs it most. That a federal grand jury is reportedly looking at a pay to play scheme within his administration as his nomination for Commerce Secretary is about to be considered by the US Senate is one of the worst cases of timing you'll ever see. Why now? We asked a legal insider to take a stab at that question:

The timing is a little out of the prosecutors' hands. Even a lot of minor actors in this investigation lawyered up even though they were not "targets" or "suspects"--they were just people who might have information or potential witnesses. Once that happens, everything moves very slowly and the time frame is completely out of the hands of he agents and prosecutors. Instead of an interview taking 20 minutes, it takes two weeks of lawyer negotiations to set up a relatively minor interview...The one thing state bureaucrats know how to do is stall...

So now the waiting game begins, with not much expected to happen between now and year's end. Will January, when Bill's nomination for Commerce comes up, also be the month that we hear the grand jury results? If they are still meeting, will a pending investigation influence President-elect Obama and the Democratic Senate on the Governor's nomination?

MEDIA WATCH

This corner believes how the national media approaches this story is of critical importance. Remember back in '93 when Bill Clinton lost several attorney general nominees to "Nannygate." It doesn't take much to derail a cabinet nomination, especially when a new administration is coming in and wants a pristine beginning. The New York Times was hunting around NM this week and we would be surprised if they did not come with a report soon. Locally, KRQE-TV was first to have the story jump from the newspapers and the Internet to the tube. They came Tuesday night with a report on Bill's news conference where he ignored shouted questions about the grand jury probe. That report resulted in a tense e-mail exchange between Gilbert Gallegos, Richardson's communications chief, and the news director for the CBS affiliate. The station published the exchange on its Web site.

Folks, we are at or near an inflection point on this story, with it either growing legs and sprinting, or dying down.

The ABQ Journal did two stories--in August and October--on the FBI investigation into the alleged pay for play scheme, but they called this week's report from Bloomberg News and the Washington Post "old news." However, Las Cruces reporter Heath Haussamen challenged that interpretation, pointing out it was this week's national reports that first mentioned a grand jury had been looking at the case--a major development that was not in the Journal's reports. Will the ABQ newspaper take a more aggressive tack on the story now that the national press may be competing with them?

There's not much Richardson can do publicly about his dilemma. He has to wait along with everyone else, but his snubbing of the press Tuesday had the Guv getting advice from the insiders. Most thought he should deflect future questioning with a smile and and a wave, not a walk-out. Easier said than done, perhaps. But having lost his political timing to forces out of his control, the last thing he needs to lose is his cool.

PORK OUTLOOK

Just how much "pork" money will be available for legislators to divvy up? That's the question we posed on the Monday blog in discussing the $16 million in capital outlay money Rio Rancho wants from the state over the next two years to help computer giant Hewlett-Packard build a customer support center. We linked to a news story that said only $75 to $100 million will be available for such projects, but lobbyist Amy Horowitz says it may be higher:

According to estimates presented at the Legislative Finance Committee last Monday the state's estimated Severance Tax Bond capacity for fiscal year 2010 is about $157 million. If you take half off the top for statewide projects (as has been done in recent years), you have $78.5 million for statewide priorities plus another $78.5 to be divided among all legislators' and Governor's projects...your stated total available for capital outlay is only half the actual anticipated amount.

But if oil and gas prices drop more, or if production decreases, lawmakers could find the pork getting more lean. Meanwhile, no matter how you cut the bacon, the $12 million for that HP project would consume a large share of the pork available for statewide projects next year.

(Rio Rancho Mayor Swisstack had told us that HP was going after $8 million in each of the next two fiscal years, but TV news reporting on the Rio Rancho city council meeting says the city will be asking for $12 million for HP's building in the next legislative session.)

The tight capital outlay outlook isn't stopping Big Bill from promising some more. When he announced this week that Signet Solar was going to build a solar panel facility in Belen, he said the project is depending on the Legislature approving $8 million in capital outlay.

Meantime, reader Carol LeSage has an idea to save some money: "So, why don't we put Hewlett-Packard in the Eclipse building? Wouldn't that be "green?"

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2008
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