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Fighting over the Downs at Albuquerque deal continues UPDATE: Mourning appears before committee

By   /   February 12, 2014  /   No Comments

ANOTHER FRONT ON THE DOWNS DEAL: The long-running debate on the Downs at Albuquerque deal continued in the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday.

ANOTHER FRONT ON THE DOWNS DEAL: The long-running debate on the Downs at Albuquerque deal continued in the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE  – The Downs at Albuquerque Downs deal was finalized more than two years ago but the political fight is far from done.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, threatened to issue a subpoena to compel the general manager of Expo New Mexico to appear before the Senate Rules Committee to answer questions about the Downs racino, the operations of the New Mexico State Fair and work of the State Fair Commission.

Dan Mourning, Expo New Mexico’s manager, has twice been asked to appear before the committee this week for an “information briefing session” but Mourning has not shown up.

In response, Lopez has floated a Senate resolution to try to compel Mourning to appear before the rules committee, of which Lopez is the chairwoman because Mourning’s appearance is “necessary (for the committee) to make a considered recommendation” regarding nominees to the State Fair Commission.

But the office of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez says Lopez — who is running for governor this year — is playing politics.

“Dan Mourning has repeatedly testified before the Legislative Finance Committee, the House Appropriations Committee and every appropriate committee to which he has been invited,” said Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell in an email to New Mexico Watchdog. “Monday’s hearing was a political circus that was so over-the-top many committee members failed to show, as did the State Auditor.”

Knell went on the say that Mourning spent Wednesday at an Albuquerque hospital with his son.

Update 2/13: Mourning appeared before the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday and defended Expo New Mexico, citing improvements made to the State Fair Commission and the Downs at Albuquerque. “We keep (commissioners) informed about the financials,” Mourning said. “I talk to commissioners quite frequently. Many commissioners have been very involved with the State Fair event.”

In order for Lopez’s subpoena to take effect, a majority of the Senate would have to approve it. Democrats hold a 25-17 edge in the Senate.

On Wednesday, the rules committee approved the nominations of two members of the State Fair Commission (and they were confirmed by the full Senate later in the day) but Lopez held over a rules committee recommendation for Larry Kennedy to be reappointed as the commission’s chairman.

Kennedy told the committee members that he was not pressured to approve a 25-year lease at the Albuquerque Downs in late 2011.

But Kennedy came under blistering criticism from Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque.

“Expo owes millions of dollars and is not in good shape,” said Keller, who is not a member of the rules committee but was allowed to question Kennedy by Lopez.

Kennedy responded by saying Expo New Mexico is reducing its debt and “we’re working and committed to making these improvements.”

“The same commitment was made two years ago,” said Keller, who added that his constituents accused Kennedy of cutting off a public meeting leading up to the approval of the Downs deal.

“I don’t recall that,” Kennedy said. “It was two and a half years ago … When you get over the age of 50, your memory tends to go but I don’t recall the meeting occurring that way.”

“You may not recall that but my constituents who were there do,” Keller said, adding that he found Kennedy’s testimony “lacking credibility” and “insulting.”

Earlier in the hearing, Kennedy handed out a list of recent accomplishments for the State Fair in the last two years, after he said Expo New Mexico “had just $35,000 in the bank when the current administration took over.”

“We have nowhere to go but up,” Kennedy said.

Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, took his own verbal shots, talking aim at the state fair’s rodeo “being as rotten and as awful as it has been in the last couple of years.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.

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