Lt. Governor Diane Denish used $225,000 in federal funds to pay for a driver to shuttle her to meetings and press events, a contractor to take Christmas pictures and write Christmas cards, a lawyer to make hotel reservations, opinion polling and public relations services. The money was given to her for “various projects” by Governor Bill Richardson. The money came from unallocated federal fiscal stimulus funds transferred to the New Mexico treasury under the 2003 Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act.
New Mexico Watchdog took a closer look at how Denish chose to use this money. New Mexico Watchdog requested that the Lt. Governor’s office produce under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act all documents containing information on how this money was spent. The documents were made available for review at the Roundhouse in one of the Governor’s conference rooms. In particular, New Mexico Watchdog reviewed billings and time sheets from independent contractors hired by the Lt. Governor.
New Mexico Watchdog also reviewed records on how larger allocations of these federal funds were spent by the Office of the Natural Resources Trustee and the Economic Development Department. These three uses of money were selected for closer inspection because the Department of Finance and Administration records on these allocations contained only the vaguest descriptions of how the money was to be spent. In the case of the ONRT, the money was allocated simply for “environmental studies.” The Economic Development Department was given about $1.6 million for vague purposes such as “research” and “border projects.” A separate report on these expenditures is available here. All these allocations were made in the discretion of Governor Richardson, outside the normal budgeting process requiring legislative authorization. New Mexico Watchdog examined unconstitutional spending of over $100 million in public funds by the Governor in its report entitled, “Governor Richardson Spends Millions in Violation of State Constitution.“
According to Sam Thompson, Denish’s spokeswoman, in 2003-04 the Lt. Governor did not have a public information officer. Denish’s office began using the federal funds to hire private individuals who were not state employees to draft press releases, write op-eds for to appear under her name, pen responses to newspaper editorials and arrange media interviews and appearances.
Laura Cowdrey and Hazel Mella, both of Albuquerque, and Timothy Blotz of Santa Fe, were hired at rates ranging from $23 to $25 per hour, plus New Mexico Gross Receipts taxes. Mella carried the title of Education Policy Advisor, even though she held no such position within state government. Blotz labeled his invoices as “public information services.”
Time sheets show that Blotz wrote speeches and press releases for Denish. He once billed three hours at $25/hour for a meeting at Barela’s Coffeehouse in Albuquerque. He also wrote responses to editorials and arranged interviews for Denish.
Cowdrey provided various public relations services, including writing op-eds and speeches and attending media events. At $23.50 per hour she also picked up the Lt. Governor at airports and was paid, according to her invoice, to “pick up things at LTG’s house.” Those initials stand for Lt. Governor. In one instance, she billed for 13 hours to drive to Carlsbad and pick up Denish and drive her around on a “Small Business Tour.” Cowdrey charged another 13 hours on another date for the same service in Alamogordo. One billing entry charged 6 hours to drive to Albuquerque from an undisclosed starting point.
Denish’s office approved payment to Cowdrey for 6 hours at $23.50 per hour on November 22, 2004, detailed in her time sheet as “taking Christmas pictures, removing decorations, setting up pre-K interviews, organizing speeches and releases for website.”
On November 24, 2004, Cowdrey billed 8 hours described as “work on Christmas card, work on history book request.”
Mella billed the Lt. Governor’s office for labeling and stuffing envelopes, attending cabinet meetings, typing minutes of meetings and “research.”
Denish also used federal funds to hire an Albuquerque attorney named Renae Richards Charney at the rate of $25 per hour. Charney did not provide legal representation or advice. According to her time sheets, she called hotels and convention centers for prices and booking availability and arranged a meeting for Denish. She also billed for meeting with the Lt. Governor’s staff about the meeting. A December 3, 2004, entry cryptically records her activities as “set up and organized facility, directed secure providers, accessed resources for use of participants, took notes and observations.”
Denish used federal funds to hire a Santa Fe consultant to produce and place radio ads to promote her child education campaign. She also used $20,000 of federal funds to hire New Mexico Research & Polling to conduct a poll called “Children’s Cabinet Public Opinion Study.”
Under the New Mexico State Constitution, the only powers and duties given to the Lt. Governor are to serve as president of the State Senate, cast a vote in cases of a tie and to succeed to the office of Governor in the case of death, incapacity or removal. Unlike other executive officers, the state constitution does not even require the Lt. Governor to keep public records, books, papers or seals of public office.