Scandals, suspicions spark legislation

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons said Wednesday morning that he’s backing legislation that would rein in the governor’s control over the state Investment Council, which manages New Mexico’s multi-billion-dollar permanent funds.

Later in the day, a trio of Democratic lawmakers from the Las Cruces area announced that they’re introducing a package of bills that would rein in the power of the state land commissioner over big real estate transactions.

Republican Lyons called those bills “a little retribution, obviously.” One of the sponsors, Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, denied the proposals had anything to do with Lyons’ investment council bill.

Meanwhile, in the swirl of legislation sparked by several ongoing scandals and investigations of alleged corruption in New Mexico, Senate Republican Whip Bill Payne of Albuquerque has introduced a bill that would deny state pensions to officials convicted for crimes involving misuse of their offices.

Investment council

The investment council bill (SB460), sponsored by Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, is co-sponsored by a couple of Democratic Senate heavyweights, Senate President pro-tem Tim Jennings of Roswell and Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming.

The bill comes as Gov. Bill Richardson’s political career has been buffeted recently by a federal grand jury investigation into possible pay-to-play allegations involving his administration and an investment firm.

The bill also comes on the heels of a whistleblower lawsuit centered around bad investments by the state Educational Retirement Board with Vanderbilt Financial, a Chicago company that gave thousands of dollars to Richardson’s presidential campaign. Richardson’s chief of staff is a defendant in the lawsuit.

The governor’s office strongly has denied wrongdoing.

A spokesman for the governor’s office on Wednesday did not respond to e-mails about SB460 from The New Mexican or The Associated Press.

Currently, the governor, administration officials and gubernatorial appointees account for seven of the State Investment Council’s nine members.

Legislative leaders would name four people to the council. The state treasurer and land commissioner would keep their seats on the council, while four “public” members would be named by the other nine members of the council.

Lyons said more people on the council would result in more questions being asked about investments and would give the Legislature more oversight.

Land commissioner

The bills regarding the state land commissioner’s authority were sparked by a controversial land deal in Dona Ana County involving a major Lyons campaign contributor, Philip Philippou.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Steinborn, Rep. Nate Cote of Las Cruces and Sen. Steve Fischmann of Mesilla Park said their bills are the result of their constituents’ concerns over the 2,450-acre Vistas at Presidio development on Las Cruces’ East Mesa. The lease was made without a competitive bidding process.

“There’s a lot of really shady deals going on,” Fischmann said.

Among the bills is House Bill 606, sponsored by Steinborn, which would require competitive bids for state Land Office leases for real-estate development purposes. Another Steinborn bill, HB605, would require local governing bodies to review real estate development leases involving the Land Office.

Lyons said he’s not opposed to competitive bidding for large leases. However, he said having city councils or county commissions reviewing every deal would add “another layer of bureaucracy” to such leases and add to the time involved.

Lyons said Steinborn’s father is leasing Land Office property, so Steinborn has a conflict of interest. Steinborn acknowledged his father’s lease but said that had nothing to do with his legislation.

State pensions

Payne’s pension bill, SB141, has been introduced before. Former Sen. John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe was his co-sponsor in previous attempts, Payne said.

Payne pointed to the fact that former state Treasurer Robert Vigil, now in prison for his part in a kickback scandal, gets about $4,500 a month in state pension. Meanwhile, former Sen. Manny Aragon, who is awaiting sentencing for his role in a separate kickback scandal, has a pension of about $2,000 a month. In addition, Aragon’s buyout after his stormy tenure as president of New Mexico Highlands University was $200,000 plus free health insurance through 2007.

However even if Payne’s bill had been law when Vigil was being sentenced, it might not have applied to the treasurer. Vigil wasn’t contributing to his retirement during his term as treasurer, a Senate Republican spokeswoman said. The pension was for his years with state government prior to 2003.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com