Guv, Lt. Guv spent public money on political news releases

Gov. Bill Richardson, left, and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (Photos by Heath Haussamen)

Gov. Bill Richardson, left, and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (Photos by Heath Haussamen)

Denish, whose office spent money on other political work as well, plans to reimburse state with campaign funds; no comment yet from Richardson

Three 2004 news releases put out by Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s government office had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with governing – but they were paid for with federal stimulus dollars.

Contract worker Lauran Cowdrey produced the releases, including one that announced Denish’s support of then-Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry’s picking John Edwards to be his running mate. The office of Gov. Bill Richardson also used public resources in 2004 to produce at least one political news release, which also praised Kerry’s selection of Edwards.

The revelation about the news releases – proof that Denish and Richardson were spending at least some public funds on politics – comes after a week in which Denish has been heavily criticized for her use of the federal stimulus money. At least one good-government advocate says – and the lieutenant governor’s office agrees – that spending public money on politics is not appropriate.

Denish’s chief of staff said late Tuesday that her gubernatorial campaign will reimburse her government office $790.54 for the cost of creating and distributing the three news releases and for work done by Cowdrey on two other days that appears to have been related to political events. Richardson’s office has not responded to an e-mail request for comment about whether the governor sees any problem with spending public money on politics.

After being shown one of the three news releases in question, Denish Chief of Staff Joshua Rosen said this afternoon that public dollars never should have gone to such an expense.

“Quite simply, the state should not have been invoiced for these press statements relating to the election,” Rosen said. “The lieutenant governor expressly forbids campaign work from being done from the state office and she was unaware that these charges were misapplied.”

Rosen said Denish “firmly believes that a strict wall must exist between politics and official state work.” The reimbursement from the campaign will include four days of work for which Cowdrey billed the state.

Denish’s office paid Cowdrey $23.50 per hour to do public relations work with funds that came from the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. Richardson gave Denish $225,000 in funds appropriated to New Mexico under the act.

Spending public money on politics is ‘generally inappropriate’

Spending public money on politics is “generally inappropriate,” said Steven Robert Allen, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.

“As a general rule, the official business of the office should be separate from any outside political business that is being done,” he said.

New Mexico’s statute related to such conflicts is “pretty straightforward and speaks for itself,” said Peggy Kerns, the director for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Center for Ethics in Government.

Here’s what that statute says:

“A legislator, public officer or employee shall treat the legislator’s, public officer’s or employee’s government position as a public trust. The legislator, public officer or employee shall use the powers and resources of public office only to advance the public interest and not to obtain personal benefits or pursue private interests incompatible with the public interest.”

Two of the three news releases for which Denish’s campaign plans to reimburse the state were clearly politically oriented because they are on letterhead from Denish’s campaign (read them here and here). The third, which was sent out in July 2004, is on government letterhead and, like the other two releases, includes contact info for Cowdrey.

That release is clearly all about Kerry’s 2004 campaign, which Denish chaired in New Mexico.

“Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish says she supports John Kerry’s choice of North Carolina Senator John Edwards as his Presidential running mate,” the release states.

Richardson’s office also put out a July 2004 news release about Kerry’s selection of Edwards.

“Senator Edwards is a strong Vice Presidential candidate,” Richardson said in the release. “He deserves the vice presidential nod because of his hard work and his strong appeal to working families. He’ll bring tremendous excitement and energy to the ticket.”

Other political expenditures

Cowdrey apparently billed the state for other political work and was paid for it after her invoices went through the standard approval process involving the state Department of Finance and Administration. Rosen has provided documents to show that Denish’s campaign paid for the printing and mailing of a 2004 Christmas card, but Cowdrey, on three days, billed Denish’s office for what Cowdrey called “work on Christmas Card.”

Rosen has said there was only one Christmas card in 2004. Last week he said that staffs’ recollection was that the work referenced on the invoices had to do with a holiday open house. He said the card was “primarily handled and paid for by the Denish campaign, not the state office.”

Today, he said this:

“We reviewed all the documents we could locate and it’s clear the campaign paid for all direct costs of the Christmas card. If Cowdrey spent any time at all on the card, we believe she was simply proofreading it in her role as the lieutenant governor’s public information officer.”

There are two other references in Cowdrey’s invoices to political work:

• “8/4 9 hours: More tax credit plan work, set up interviews, work on Kerry for Saturday, consultant letter for Carlos, etc.”

• “7/28 8 hours: DNC media binder, organizing clips, manning front office while Barbara attended day-long class.”

Rosen confirmed that work done on both of those days – July 28 and Aug. 4, 2004 – is among the work for which Denish’s campaign is reimbursing the state.

Kerry was in New Mexico the Saturday after Aug. 4, 2004, riding a train with Edwards through Raton to Albuquerque. Denish joined the two at a campaign stop in Las Vegas, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Rosen reiterated today what he said about that on Monday:

“The work done by this contract public information officer relating to an event for Sen. Kerry or the 2004 election consisted of fielding media calls, providing logistical information about Lt. Gov. Denish’s role and clarifying a remark on behalf of the lieutenant governor,” Rosen said.

Beyond confirming the reimbursement, Rosen has not released any statement or information in response to questions about the reference to the DNC. The date mentioned in that invoice – July 28, 2004 — coincides with the dates of the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Denish attended the Boston convention, serving as chair of the New Mexico delegation.

There’s another piece of evidence that Cowdrey was doing political work. In a July 8, 2004 article written by The Santa Fe New Mexican’s Steve Terrell, Cowdrey is identified as “a spokeswoman for Denish” and quoted as talking about a public spat between Denish and then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid over whether Edwards had a strong campaign organization in New Mexico when he was running for president earlier in 2004.

Rosen did not directly respond when asked about the quote from Cowdrey in Terrell’s article.

Republicans attack

Denish is the likely Democratic nominee for governor. Republicans have hammered her in the last week over her spending of the federal stimulus money, which was first reported on by New Mexico Watchdog, a site funded by the libertarian Rio Grande Foundation.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Weh and former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson have called for formal probes. And today, Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez said she hopes the revelation about the news releases “will refresh Diane Denish’s memory concerning the misuse of federal stimulus funds, which were clearly intended for economic development, not political campaigns.”

This article has been updated to include additional information from Rosen.

7 thoughts on “Guv, Lt. Guv spent public money on political news releases

  1. nmprof: You’re saying there was probably nothing wrong with Domenici mailing out calendars. I agree. Whether he should have spent taxpayer money on such an expense is not the question in my mind – it’s whether he was allowed to do so by law. And he was.
    Same here: What prevents Denish from using taxpayer money to work on a Christmas card? The Legislature was supposed to have a role in appropriating these funds, it appears, but chickened out like it’s done so many times when Richardson insisted on spending the money on his own. Regardless, there was apparently no additional stipulation or check on how the money was to be spent, except that it was for “essential” government services. But “essential” wasn’t defined, so the important part of that phrase is “government services.”
    Public relations, like it or not, is an important part of most government offices. That can include things like Christmas cards.
    I’m not saying it was OK for Denish to have a staffer do some work on a Christmas card that was being sent out by the campaign. I’m saying, at the time I wrote my Friday commentary, it wasn’t clear she was doing something wrong. And it’s still not really clear. It was and remains, in my mind, a gray area. That’s why I raised questions about it in my first and my second article.
  2. Heath: There’s quite a difference, as you know, between disingenuous bugling (here, remember the announcement of cold fusion in Utah), and genuine whistle blowing. I’m thinking Scarantino falls into the whistle blowing category, no? He doesn’t claim, nor has he ever claimed, to be a journalist. He publicly leaves that station to those like you, and suggests that his story is merely providing leads for others. Would this article exist without his catalyst?Ultimately, however, I really have a problem with your last two paragraphs in the previous related article I’ve referenced. You relate the Denish stimulus-gate with Domenici’s calendar:  however you as well as I know the question of spending is often castigated to the regulations behind that spending. In Domenici’s case I’m sure he had a line-item for supplying calendars (the point would have been better representative had you used Jeff than Pete, but nevertheless). You’re right in that taxpayer money should be spent as it was purposed: and spending it for political purposes should be avoided and called out when recognized. But I remain curious as to why you hesitated to call it out instead of recognizing it to begin with.

  3. Incidentally, hats off to Haussamen for whistle-blowing on one of his website advertisers – Denish.

  4. nmprof: At the time of my Friday commentary I didn’t know — and no one else had reported publicly — the concerning information that’s included in this report about the spending of public money on politics. But really, my Friday commentary was about much more than Denish’s spending of federal stimulus money. It was about my view that Scarantino’s report was incomplete and not ready for publishing, about the way the GOP tried to turn Scarantino’s reporting into a scandal when his reporting didn’t even allege any wrongdoing, and about the way the media covered the situation. The views I expressed on Friday about those topics have not changed.

    This report, which I published Tuesday evening, details the first information I’ve found about Denish’s spending of the federal stimulus money that I thought was worth an article. It is a serious topic. Certainly, the public should be concerned any time a public official misspends public money.
  5. Forgive me if I’m wrong, Heath, but did you not ask “What’s the big deal?” two days ago? If I remember correctly you also hammered the person from the New Mexico Watchdog who reported this (something about not being a real journalist as you are…)? Are you still wondering if there’s anything to be concerned about?