Monday, June 18, 2012

Santa Fe's Shadow Government Is Outed: Email Scandal Reveals Back Channel Policy Making; Guv Advisor McCleskey At Center; What Now? Complete Coverage, Plus Analysis And Comment 

The thing about power--besides how it corrupts--is how it also reveals. And what is being revealed in Santa Fe is nothing less than a shadow government run by Governor Martinez's chief political advisor Jay McCleskey and acquiesced to by the Governor and other government officials--many of whom owe their jobs to him.

This shadow government is now out of the shadows, splashed across the front pages of the state's major newspapers. The scandal is centered on the use of personal email accounts to keep official government business from seeing the light of day and threatens to expand in the days ahead, claiming victims and costing the administration dearly as these scandals are often known to do.

Insiders tell us that the back channel communications initiated by McCleskey and used by top administration officials--including the Governor herself--are more numerous than the two instances that have surfaced. One of them told us:

"They are like cockroaches. When you see one, you know there are more."

The news load is heavy when these affairs blow-up. The New Mexican leads the coverage with the first front-pager here and another here. The ABQ Journal comes here and here. The New Mexican comes back with an editorial. The AP takes it national with a rewrite of the papers. The New Mexican returns with a report on state legislators using their state email accounts for personal business, but one of them points out lawmakers don't implement policy or issue state contracts. Also, their email addresses are listed on the state legislature's web site. Coverage from KOB-TV includes this:

The emails invoke secrecy and open government issues that all seem to slop into the soup of a brewing email scandal. Big questions--did the Governor's political team use state employees for a political purpose, and did a hired-gun political operative get special treatment and special information?

And the Journal finally comes with a much overdue profile of McCleskey (with some tasty touches from their crack investigative team). Several Republicans are so fearful of McCleskey they refused to go on the record, though one of them flatly says McCleskey is running the government.

For McCleksey, 37, to be drawing this much attention to himself is a mortal sin for a consultant and it may signal his mortality as a major political figure in this administration. Maybe not right away, but....

The Journal also comes with an editorial reprimanding Martinez who has long been one of their favorites:

The question of a state agency doing the bidding of a political group on the taxpayers’ dime is troubling. If that’s what happened, it should have no place in the Martinez administration, which has pledged transparency and the rooting out of corruption and abuse.

"Troubling?" For sure. How about "illegal?" Well, with more email communications bound to surface that question can't be far behind.

Then there's this gem from the Governor when asked if McCleskey is running her administration:

“I wouldn’t get these kind of questions from reporters down south, who know me,” said Martinez, a former district attorney in Las Cruces. “They know that I’m a strong, informed executive, and I don’t win the office without having great passion for the policies that I’m pushing forward. No one tells me what to think.”

"Reporters down south?" Just a reminder, Governor, you are no longer "down south" where you were covered as a mere local district attorney and protected. You are now on the statewide stage, dealing with all kinds of pain in the ass people--like us--who want to know who really is running our state.

As we've pointed out the past two years, that is not the case with a number of "reporters" from "down south" whose bias in favor of this administration has left them eating our dust and that of others "up north" when it comes to telling the true narrative of governmental power.

Based on the evidence, Guv, your denials about McCleskey simply don't ring true. And if they are true, then send him packing so we can see that you are indeed the independent executive you claim to be. But before you show us, you might want to let your fellow Republicans know--especially the ones afraid to talk to the press out of fear of reprisal.

Before we go any further, let's be clear. On its surface the scandal is about emails and government transparency. But the larger issue is the operation of a shadow government by a non-elected official. It is that matter that needs to command the attention of the Governor, the media and the public.


At the root of the problem is Martinez's decision to turn over tremendous power to McCleskey who has no official role in the government, but is a political operative of long tenure known for his harsh tactics on the campaign trail. He played a major role in getting Martinez elected in 2010, but now the question is whether he will be instrumental in bringing her down.

McCleskey, who runs Susana PAC, has been dubbed New Mexico's Karl Rove, after the tough-minded Bush advisor. He is also known as "The Fifth Floor." That's a reference to the Governor's office being on the fourth floor--the top floor of the Santa Fe Roundhouse--and McCleskey occupying a metaphorical "Fifth Floor" where the real power resides.

McCleskey has deep ties to the Republican National Committee whose philosophical footprint has been deep in this administration. McCleskey's political associates include the aforementioned Rove, and lawyer and GOP National Committeeman Pat Rogers who played a key role in the US attorney scandal that engulfed US Senator Pete Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson. Rogers and McCleskey have close ties to lawyer/lobbyist Mickey Barnett, a longtime player in state GOP politics. Informed sources say that these personalities, in addition to McCleskey, constitute the "shadow government" we refer to.

Already two Democratic legislators have started the legal drumbeat, asking the attorney general to investigate the controversial emails to determine if they violate the law (Their letter is here). As a result, McCleskey is now becoming a known political figure--no longer able to operate in the shadows. It is going to cost Martinez political capital to defend him--and to keep him. Her foes will make sure of that. We asked one of our Alligators to sum up the situation and they came with this:

What we have is a shadow government and what you see before the TV cameras is all for show. The real business of the state takes places behind the scenes in the shadows, where no one--especially the tax-paying public--is not supposed to see what is really going on.

Even the mild-mannered director of the state's leading transparency group could not hold back:

Gwyneth Doland, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG), said: "I am horrified to think that it may be the practice of the state of New Mexico to conduct public business in secret using email accounts that no records custodian could access."

The evasion of accountability is especially galling to the open government groupies. The Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) is relied on by them to pry information from the government. But it can't get at personal email accounts. McCleskey was busted by trial attorney Sam Bregman, a potential 2014 Dem Guv candidate, who turned over his booty to Michael Corwin, head of the Independent Source PAC, a union-funded watchdog group which fed the leaks to the media. The administration is going to meet with the open government foundation in an effort to get them to back off their criticism and quiet the scandal.

But in a first sign of how the administration will react to the criticism, Darren White, a close friend of McCleskey's who is now working for the Downs at ABQ after being ousted from his position as Director of Public Safety under ABQ Mayor Richard Berry, lashed out at Doland on his Twitter account. He accused her and the NM Foundation for Open Government of being hypocrites for not probing the use of personal emails by state legislators. For her part, Doland responded: "We believe all public business should be done using public email accounts, no matter the office.'

This is exactly the wrong tack to take--making more enemies, retreating into the bunker and keeping the scandal going. That's what cost White his job when a scandal exploded last year in which he was accused of showing favoritism towards his wife when she got in an auto accident. He and his allies lashed out at the media--rather than come clean--and the rest is history.


The outing of McCleskey's power is nothing new to readers of this blog. We've been on the story from the get-go, warning that Santa Fe was being run largely as a political operation, not a government. Now that this truth has been revealed to the New Mexican public at large, it is a seminal moment in the Martinez governorship. She is an important symbolic figure to the nation's Hispanics, but one who has ceded much of the real power of her office to McCleskey and his political allies.

Predictions as to where the government goes now are all over the map. Will Martinez and McCleskey dig in their heels, double-down and wage all-out war against their enemies--real or perceived? Or will she take action to nip the budding scandal in the bud? That Twitter from White was the first indication that the administration will head to the bunker. An Alligator of long standing weighs in with this:

At some point she is going to have to decide whether she is going to stand on her own two feet or whether this umbilical cord wrapped around her neck is going to stay and take her down...And Jay is taking her down. The velocity is starting to pick up. If you are a Democrat, you could be looking forward to a whole boatload of people going down because of this...

If the boat has sprung a leak, there is a way for Susana to patch it up, says our Gator:

She should immediately say there will be no more communications on private email. 'I am getting rid of my account. Everything is going to be done on state of New Mexico email and if you are a state employee you will not have political involvement and you will not be taking phone calls from Jay McCleskey.'

 I don't think she will do that because she is convinced that Jay provides the political oxygen that sustains her..

Martinez is not about to plummet in the polls because of this scandal. The damage in these affairs is usually done drip by drip over a period of months not days. Suddenly, however, the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nomination does seem to be worth more than it was a week ago.


That McCleskey had accumulated too much authority and had begun to overreach first became public during the recent primary election. That's when he got the Governor involved in a GOP state Senate primary in which he pulled out all the stops and lost. Rancher Pat Woods triumphed over Angie Spears in that Clovis area contest, but Martinez shared Spears' loss, having campaigned for her publicly and being unable to deliver. Jay's scorched-earth tactics, sanctioned by Martinez, were soundly rejected and ripped apart the state Republican Party.


The GOP cannibalism in Clovis and Susana's reliance on her chief political advisor brought this comment  from Andrew Leo Lopez, a longtime ABQ South Valley Democrat, but a staunch supporter of Susana's:

The Governor is throwing away her political capital--and she has a lot of it. What's at stake now is not just the success of her administration but the future of the Republican Party. It has only about 30% of the state's voters. If she fails, it will set back her party immensely. She needs to broaden her circle of advisers and bid adieu to Jay and his companions. It is that simple."

Some kind of moment of truth is approaching for Martinez. With more emails apparently coming that may reveal even more plotting and executing of government action via unofficial channels, she is threatened with the prospect of looking like a puppet of her political advisor as well as collaborating with him to keep the government between her and him. Not the "bold change" she and Jay so proudly trumpeted during the 2010 campaign.


The mess with McCleksey is disheartening to open government advocates who thought a new leaf had been turned when the Richardson administration passed into history. It is also worth noting that the public mood is much more sour and cynical than when Bill was around and money was flowing. Tight economic times mean a more impatient electorate, something Martinez has yet to encounter, but she could if the email scandal spreads. The serious economic problems the state faces are going to look even more glaring if Martinez is tied up with an ethics mess.

And what about policy? Well, let's not get too far ahead of the curve. If the scandal is quieted she has a long two and half years before her re-elect. But if there is an erosion of power, industries like oil and gas that have had the administration's protection could find themselves looking around to make sure they have more legislative support. They could start dealing more nicely with the Dems, instead of continuing to give big money to Jay to attack Dems on the campaign trail.

How about a sacrificial lamb? You often get one in these deals. This time it seems Public Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens fits the bill. He's already said he made "a mistake" in sending McCleskey an official education department email via his personal email account--not his state account. Will Behrens (or education secretary Hanna Skandera) be hung out to dry in order to protect the bigger fish? The Gators are watching this like they watch wounded prey.


This statement from Guv spokesman Scott Darnell on why McCleskey was included in a state email from the Governor brims with irony--of the near-comic variety:

It’s likely due to the fact that he is an adviser to the governor, and like many governors, she seeks broad input on situations. 

Of course, if this was a Governor who sought "broad input" she would not be faced with this email mess...


We're not saying that the email scandal is the equivalent of Watergate whose beginnings 40 years ago this week were observed over the weekend, but we do note that it is usually efforts to cover up transgressions--even minor ones--that get Governors and Presidents in trouble. In Santa Fe's case there may be bunch more emails floating around that originated from Susana PAC email accounts and deal with official government business. If so, it's best to come clean early rather than try to cover the tracks.

It was email accounts from Susana PAC, the political committee run on behalf of Martinez by McCleskey, that state officials used to go below the radar. It was the Committee to Re-elect the President--known as CREEP--that played a central role in the Watergate scandal that brought President Nixon down. Not that this is that serious yet, but we're just sayin'....


Martinez could use this eruption as a reason to make a mid-course correction. If she is serious about getting out from under the thumb of Jay, Pat Rogers, Mickey Barnett and other longtime players in the McCleskey circle--egged on by the operatives at the Republican National Committee--she could make major staff changes.

We blogged exclusively in June of 2011 of how former State Representative Brian Moore was forced out as Martinez's deputy chief of staff after only several months on the job. He was forced out because he was not fully on board with McCleskey, reported our insiders. What if Martinez were to make a bold move and bring him back from exile in Washington and make him chief of staff? Could Moore be the anti-Jay and restore the badly out of balance power structure on the Fourth Floor? Only if the Guv would let him.

What of current Chief of Staff Keith Gardner? It is now even more obvious how subservient he is to McCleskey who the emails confirm has the run of state government--even though he is not on the state payroll. Gardner could be placed elsewhere and placated with a nice salary.

Give Jay his due, he helped the Guv get elected after he presided over years of many political losses. If Martinez could keep him on the leash, she might be able to keep him aboard as a political advisor--and really mean it. Run the campaign but get him out--really out--of the government decision making process. Still, with the notoriety Jay has accumulated his presence in any political context is now going to be radioactive for this Governor. A complete break may be required.

The uproar the scandal has created can actually be an opportunity for a mid-course correction for Martinez, but if they do the dig-in-the heels-act and it works, the problem may go away only to  reappear on her doorstep again and again.

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