Monday, July 22, 2013

Downs Deal Keeps The Summer La Politica Buzzing; We've Got The Latest, Plus: An Uncovered Story: Media Bullying By Political Operatives; A PR Pro Enlightens 

The twists and turns of the ABQ Downs racino deal drives the news of La Poltica in this Summer of '13. The latest....

The ABQ Journal coverage of the investigation of the controversial 25 year Downs racino lease continues to draw intense reader analysis and scrutiny.

When the paper on Friday hit with a front-pager with the headline:  "Early Inquiry Cleared Downs Deal," readers and Alligators responded, saying it left the impression that the Downs deal--in which bid-rigging is alleged--had somehow been cleared of any wrongdoing. It hasn't.

The accounting firm that came with an initial report favorable to the administration--and that the story cited--is working with State Auditor Hector Balderas. He will have the final say on what findings ultimately get his stamp of approval.

So what's really going on? Our readers are on the case:

About that headline, “Early Inquiry Cleared Downs Racino Deal”:  While making a weak effort to correct the record from their previous reporting record by stating that there is in fact an actual FBI criminal investigation underway, the Journal article seems designed to reassure nervous Martinez supporters that this is just a lot of partisan dirty tricks from Democrats and there's no need to be concerned. 

More importantly, announcing positive results of an audit report (however meaningless to the FBI’s criminal investigation) that has yet to be finalized could be seen as an effort by the Martinez administration to warn any insiders with direct knowledge of possible improprieties involving the Downs deal that this controversy is going to break in favor of the Governor. And if so, for anyone in such a position, better to get on the right side now, keep quiet and resist any urge to purge to the FBI.

Additionally, it’s important to understand that the audit conducted by Griego Professional Services is one of hundreds of run-of-the-mill operational/financial audits prepared on behalf and at the direction of the State Auditor. They tend to focus on compliance with state statutes and/or NM Administrative Code Rules.

This type of audit should not be confused with forensic audits which are specifically designed to identify and document criminal behavior--theft, fraud, corruption, bid-rigging, etc.  It’s clear from the article that Griego Professional Services was not directed to review any emails, phone records, bank records, etc. of Martinez administration officials involved in the Downs deal. If in fact, there’s no grand jury convened and no subpoenas issued--as the article asserted--it's likely no forensic audit has occurred. 

The FBI appears to still be at the interviewing stage of its investigation.  On the other hand, if indictments are eventually handed down, we’ll know that this early inquiry “cleared” nothing.


One of our Senior Alligators agrees with that reader that the audit article was pushed by the Martinez administration to try to assure potential witnesses in the FBI investigation that they have nothing to worry about an also to put pressure on State Auditor Hector Balderas. Balderas is running for the Dem nomination for attorney general. The Senior Gator:

The Journal made a front page piece out of "old news" that isn't even actually news. They reported on an audit that wasn't a real audit on the Downs and giving the report a headline that left the impression that  the deal has been cleared as legit. 

I believe they did so so to try to force the hand of State Auditor Balderas. He still has not released a final audit of the Downs. This article lays the ground work for charges that Balderas is politicizing his office even when the facts--in my view--will finally show just how corrupt the Downs deal was. Isn't pressuring state officials conducting investigations somewhat problematic for the ABQ Journal?

And it is indeed "old news" that the Journal splashed. On February 6 the NM Watchdog--a conservative funded news site--released the very same findings from the Griego firm and that the Journal rehashed on Friday.

Balderas' office told the NM Watchdog way back in February that the audit from Griego Professional Services is getting a final look before it is officially released and is not considered complete. And the office repeated that to the Journal:

Our audit review team is currently in the final stages of verifying key information and documents with the independent auditor and Expo’s management.”

If Balderas now comes with changes to the Griego audit, expect the Martinez operatives to launch a full scale-attack on the Dem official, alleging he conspired to make them and the Downs deal look bad by altering the Griego account. But if Balderas looks like he is caving in and going soft on the Downs deal, he could get a political backlash from activist Dems. He is being challenged for the Dem AG nomination by Jason Marks. That's why the Martinez camp planted that story.

The eventual AG nominee will likely face Guv favorite Matt Chandler who was the AG nominee in 2010.  Hector's choice doesn't seem too difficult. Let Chandler blast him for how he handles the Downs deals, Dems and independents aren't going to hold it against him. But if Balderas holds back.....

As our first reader wrote, much of this is positioning. The real story remains the FBI criminal investigation of the Downs deal and where that eventually leads. Actors in that probe still have plenty of reason to worry. Or no reason to worry if they are in the wrong and decide to unburden themselves of a guilty conscience and cut a deal while the deal cutting is good.


Dem state Senator and ''14 Dem guv candidate Linda Lopez broke the ice among elected officials when she called for the public release of all the records surrounding the Downs deal--including emails among administration officials and for records that the news media is asking for. She's now joined by ABQ Dem state Senator Tim Keller whose district includes the racino and who is also a candidate for the '14 Dem nod for state auditor. He says:

There has been no response since Sen. Lopez called for full disclosure of all communication relating to the Downs Casino contract and the ‘dark clouds’ remain as cars trickle into the new Casino parking lot.

On behalf of my constituents,  I am reiterating the call for full transparency and an honest account, from start to finish, of exactly how this deal was awarded and the merits for awarding this contract. The Martinez administration must be held accountable to the taxpayers for the lack of community input, unexplained out of state travel, state police expenses, $70,000 in campaign contributions and transparency the people of New Mexico deserve..."

That out-of-state travel Keller references is the now famous (or infamous) alligator hunting trip that the Guv's husband--first gentleman Chuck Franco--took to Louisiana with two taxpayer-paid state cops acting as security. Two of the Downs' owners live in Louisiana.


We've reported of the hardball tactics being used by Governor Martinez's political consultant Jay McCleskey in attempting to keep the state's news media in line, and it appears to have worked to some extent.

You know of Jay's longtime obsession with this blog but you might not be aware of the brow beating reporters and editors have been receiving. That's the real story. One of our readers--Chris Cervini, VP for the local branch of the public relations firm--and a former chief of staff to Lt. Governor Diane ,Strategies 360--sheds the light:

Joe, I'm glad you are the one to have finally pointed this out. As a media-relations professional I take very seriously the ability to establish honest (though not always easy) relationships with reporters. Journalists ask the questions and I  earnestly try to get them answers.

To hear that all you really have to do to get your way with the local media is threaten and berate editors and news directors is a whole new strategy.

And don't think you're reporting in a vacuum--I have heard of this unprecedented level of media bullying from more than one source.

Here's to you--someone willing to actually say something and put your name to it. Let's hope others in our traditional media grow a spine sometime soon. I think this media bullying is a story unto itself.

There's indeed a story there for local journalism. But reporters and editors are  "hush-hush" about it. Just what kind of pressure is being applied in the state's newsrooms? How is it impacting coverage of the administration?

We've previously reported the deep ties the Martinez administration has to personnel in the newsroom of KRQE-TV and how those ties appear to have led to the station covering emailgate with a bias toward the administration. As a result, the station was forced to apologize for errors in its reporting. But what about the other TV newsrooms? What kind of heat have they received?


And what about the Journal?

Why has it become so obviously obsequious toward the Martinez administration? In addition to the Downs audit story and more front page weekend hits on the long-departed Big Bill, there was a sympathetic front-page Sunday column highlighting Governor Martinez's loss of several pets.

That comes amid the state being ranked 50th in the nation in child well-being and the ABQ metro ranking 96th out of 100 in the post-recession recovery.

Martinez has refused to comment on the child well-being report, with her staff telling one reporter she was unavailable for comment.  No wonder the pet front-pager--replete with gubernatorial quotes derived from a one-on-one interview at the Guv's Mansion--had the Alligators jumping out of the pond:

What's with the Journal's story about Martinez's pets? It reminds me of Dick Nixon trotting out Checkers when times got tough. Maybe the sappy pet story indicates there's a rougher road ahead for Martinez and she needs to build up the sympathy factor. Is this why the governor has done nothing in the last 6 months, because she's in a funk about her dogs? It sucks to lose a pet, but you know what really sucks? When a family member loses care for a mental health disease because the governor cuts off services. That really sucks, Governor.

And another:

Did you see the fluff piece to garner sympathy? Is it a newspaper or her PR firm!

Is the paper's even firmer embrace of the Governor a continuation of the enhanced conservative/GOP bias that has become it's trademark in recent years? Or something else? 

These are fair questions when you have a leading PR professional in this town and a lot of reporters wondering (off-the-record) just what in the heck is going on with the "free press." If any of those reporters, editors or producers want to tell their stories, we provide an open forum and, if desired,  anonymity. Just email them in.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

E-mail your news and comments. (jmonahan@ix.netcom.com)

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