The Downs Exposed and Implodes

The Downs contract with the New Mexico State Fair finally got a vetting from members of the state legislature, and their verdict was harsh. 

This deal stinks,” said Sen. Tim Jennings (D-Chavez). 

Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Bernalillo), likewise, felt a tinge in her nostrils: “It smells really bad.”

The Senate Rules Committee met Monday to confirm four members of the State Fair Commission, and much of the conversation concerned the Downs’s 25-year contract with the state of New Mexico, approved late last year, to open and operate a new racino on the fairgrounds in Albuquerque. 

Jennings suggested, repeatedly, that the Senate pass a bill to undo the state’s agreement with the Downs and require a renegotiation of the deal. 

“They damn sure owe you an apology for this,” Jennings told Kenneth “Buster” Goff, who was passed along to the full Senate floor without a recommendation. “It’s not your fault. You tried to make a decision real quick, and somebody probably told you to do it.”

The contract is worth potentially more than $1 billion to Louisiana-based Downs owners Bill Windham and John Turner, who have donated thousands of dollars to Gov. Susana Martinez both before and after her election to the top office at the Roundhouse. 

Sen. Cisco McSorley represents the district which houses the fairgrounds, and attended the meeting to speak out from the audience against confirming Goff and Larry Kennedy. Goff admitted he suggested changes to the contract, which were made before he agreed to vote it through. 

Kennedy said he, too, had an opportunity to change the contract before he voted in favor. 

“I’m shocked to hear this,” McSorley said. “This means certain commissioners were given certain priorities and privileges the other commissioners weren’t given. That is not transparent. That means these things were done in secret.”

Committee members did not like hearing what Charlotte Rode had to say about her brief tenure as a state fair commissioner (including that she was not allowed to suggest lease changes before voting on it). Rode spoke of being denied access to documents related to the Downs lease. 

In her hunt for information, Rode was told she would need to make official Inspection of Public Records Act requests (she did, she said, but they have been ignored) and the governor’s office told her she would have to pay for paper copies of documents (25 cents per word). 

“Freezing me out” was how Rode put it. 

Michael Sanchez (D-Valencia) echoed the sentiments of other shocked senators on the rules committee when he questioned why she would be denied access to “information you asked for that’s essential for you to be a state fair commissioner.”

“It’s unconscionable for a state fair manager to deny information or access to one of its (commission) members,” said Sanchez.

Rode said Downs management has “been next to impossible” to work with, and is constantly referring her to a lawyer. 

“Why the manager has a lawyer, I don’t know,” she said. 

Acting Downs manager Dan Mourning was invited on Thursday by senators to attend Monday’s hearing. He didn’t show, and rules committee members stressed repeatedly they were frustrated that no one from the Downs was in attendance. 

George Munoz (D-Cibola) said Mourning “ought to be terminated immediately if he’s not going to operate in the open.” Munoz said he would write a letter to Martinez asking that Mourning be terminated from the post. 

Jennings went on at length about Rode’s ordeal, calling it “crooked as a snake” and “just dirty” and “crooked stuff to line people’s pockets.” He compared the governor’s actions to a “dictatorship” and said “this is the kind of government we don’t want to have.”

Rode said she has spent “countless hours” reviewing “thousands of documents,” in spite of the stonewalling she’s faced. While her IPRA requests have been ignored, she turned over her own personal emails when she herself received an IPRA backed by Rep. Nate Gentry. 

That little nugget peeved some of the Rules Committee senators. “You were personally attacked because you asked for basic information, which you should have been provided,” said Jennings. 

Among the questions asked were why the commission voted on the deal at a meeting the public had been told would merely be a workshop. Kennedy and Goff, both “yes” votes for the contract, said they believed the were ready to vote. 

Goff, though, said he didn’t see the scorecard where the Downs was given a 300-out-of-300 by a Martinez-appointed evaluator on management, despite numerous management issues there. Kennedy said he saw the 300 scorecard, but didn’t question it.

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