State Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces, says there was no conflict of interest or impropriety in his decision in 2003 to use taxpayer money to pave a road that doesn’t serve his constituents but instead improves access to a business he owns.
He’s wrong. I’m not sure whether he can’t see that or simply refuses to admit it, but either is concerning.
The Albuquerque Journal was the first to report on the fact that the Senate minority whip, who has been in the Legislature since 1987, secured $111,000 in capital outlay funds in 2003 to pave 14th Street, which is located in Las Cruces but outside Rawson’s district. The road provides primary access to a commercial development Rawson’s late father built that Rawson now largely owns.
Rawson’s opponent in the upcoming election, Democrat Steve Fischmann, told the Journal and Las Cruces Sun-News that Rawson’s move represented a conflict of interest because it enhances the value of Rawson’s development and doesn’t serve his constituents.
Rawson says the road-paving project didn’t enhance the value of his property, so he didn’t directly benefit. He says the city committed to his late father that it would pave the road in 1994, but never followed through. He was quoted by the Sun-News as saying that the benefit of the paving “went to the city on helping them fulfill the commitment they made nine years earlier.”
According to the Journal, the city used the funds on the $159,000 project that included paving the dirt road, building sidewalks, improving drainage and installing five street lights and new eight-inch water mains. That certainly makes any property that is accessed primarily from that street more attractive and accessible.
Perhaps Rawson’s allegation that the city reneged on its pledge to make the improvements is true. It’s irrelevant, and his argument is a distraction from the real issue. Just about any other business owner whose family suffered from the city backing out of a commitment wouldn’t have the ability on his own to set aside $111,000 in taxpayer money to help the city keep its promise. Almost anyone else would have to go to the area’s lawmaker and ask for such help. In Rawson’s case, that would have been Sen. Mary Kay Papen, who told the Journal she “probably” would have sought the funding because the road is in an industrial area and needed paving.
Rawson told the Sun-News he didn’t go to Papen because doing so “would indicate that there was an impropriety to it, and that there was something to hide. And there isn’t.”
Rawson often speaks about being a big fan of transparency, and he’s sponsored legislation to increase transparency in government. It’s possible he actually believes the argument he’s making and is trying to be as forthcoming about the situation as he can. It’s also possible he’s been caught with his hand in the pork barrel and is trying to spin his way out of it.
When public, private paths cross
It’s inevitable, at times, that a public official’s private and public paths will cross, as they did in this instance. Rawson’s father owned a business. The city promised to pave a road that needed paved, then didn’t. Rawson had the power to intervene and decided to do so.
But there’s a clear path public officials must follow in such instances: They must not exert any influence or take any action that a person who isn’t a public official wouldn’t be able to take. Otherwise, they’re abusing public positions for personal benefit. It’s that simple.
Rawson should have asked Papen for help. That would have been perfectly appropriate. The fact that he can’t see that suggests he feels a sense of entitlement because of his elected position. Several incumbents whose actions indicate they have the same sense of entitlement have lost re-election battles this year.
This isn’t a call to elect Fischmann. I believe Rawson’s use of capital outlay money in this instance was egregious, and constituents in his district who live on unpaved roads or have other problems $111,000 could solve should be upset. But there are also other issues to consider in the upcoming election. Click here to read my profile on this race, published in July.
Regardless of the other concerns in this race, Rawson’s abuse of the pork barrel is a serious issue that voters should consider when choosing between him and Fischmann. If Rawson is re-elected, he needs to learn that such conduct isn’t appropriate and do things differently for the remainder of his time in public office.