NMPolitics.net has won a national investigative reporting award for shining light on a possible conflict of interest current N.M. State Auditor Tim Keller had when he was a state senator.
The National Federation of Press Women notified NMPolitics.net on Thursday that Heath Haussamen had won first place in the investigative reporting category in its 2016 Communications Contest.
“This is an amazing honor and confirmation of the importance of our journalism,” said Haussamen, NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher. “Devoting resources to investigative reporting is challenging for news organizations these days, but it’s critical to keeping our society healthy.”
As a Democratic state senator, Keller was a leading critic of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s lease with a company to operate a racetrack and casino at the state fair grounds in Albuquerque — a deal that was undeniably controversial and smacked of conflicts.
But Keller, whose Senate district included the state fair grounds, had his own potential conflict. While a legislator, Keller also worked for Blue Stone Strategy Group as a consultant to Native American tribes and other groups. For years he was rumored to have financial ties to Laguna Pueblo, whose development corporation was the losing bidder for the state fair lease.
Keller told journalists more than once that he had no financial connection to Laguna.“They’re not a client of mine, nor do any of my clients have any even remotely vested interest in the whole thing,” Keller said in November 2011.
Haussamen’s reporting demonstrated otherwise. Documents he obtained indicated that Laguna Pueblo and an entity owned by the pueblo were clients of Blue Stone while Keller was a principal in the company.
Our first report on the topic, “Docs may reveal potential Keller conflict on state fair lease,” came in August 2015. It was well-read, praised by some, and criticized by others.
Haussamen followed up a month later with a commentary published by NMPolitics.net and several newspapers explaining why he focused on Keller. He also urged New Mexicans to reject conflicts in their legislative system:
I’m singling out Keller because, as auditor, he’s responsible for policing the ethics of other government officials. His past failure illustrates a cancer in our system – a pervasiveness and acceptance of conflicts.
We need to demand that our lawmakers avoid or at least disclose conflicts. We also need to design a better system that discourages conflicts.
When they’re doing legislative work, we deserve to know our lawmakers are acting in the interest of their constituents, not their employers. Our current system gives us no such assurances.
New Mexico’s state lawmakers are the only in the nation who aren’t paid for their work. Haussamen argued that creates a structural problem: “Unless we pay a reasonable salary, we can’t expect lawmakers to always avoid conflicts between their jobs and legislative duties.”
Keller’s folks pushed back against our journalism. The chief of staff in the auditor’s office, Sunalei Stewart, wrote in an email that Haussamen’s reporting was “very misleading.” The reason? The public statements Haussamen highlighted from Keller denying Laguna Pueblo was a client came in 2011 and 2015 — but Blue Stone did work for entities owned by Laguna Pueblo (but not the pueblo’s development corporation, which was the losing bidder for the state fair lease) in 2010 and 2013.
“When it comes to conflicts, the timeline matters as does the entity involved,” Stewart wrote in an email.
Haussamen rejected that argument in another commentary published in September 2015:
When Keller was asked in 2011 if Laguna Pueblo was a client, the most transparent answer would have been that a Laguna-owned entity had been a client in the past but wasn’t anymore. Keller should have also explained why he didn’t see that as a conflict.
When I asked in July of this year, the most transparent answer would have been to disclose that Laguna-owned entities had been clients in 2010 and 2013 and to explain why he didn’t see that as a conflict.
Instead, Keller kept quiet about facts that would have helped the public judge his juggling of his job and legislative duties.
This is how I see things: Keller said for years that Laguna Pueblo wasn’t a client. No publicly available evidence contradicted that claim. Then I got my hands on the Blue Stone client list that indicated otherwise and asked again, and Keller and Blue Stone refused to comment on whether the Laguna entities were clients.
So I wrote an article about a possible conflict. And then a commentary. Now the line is, well, Laguna-owned entities were clients — but not in the same year as that one quote that’s on YouTube, so the entire argument that Keller had a conflict is flawed.
Haussamen’s reporting on the Keller situation also won a first-place award for investigative reporting earlier this year in the 2015 New Mexico Press Women contest — which made it eligible to compete in the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) competition.
NMPolitics.net went up against other first-place winners in state competitions from across the nation in the NFPW investigative reporting contest. NFPW, of which Haussamen is a member, describes itself as “a dynamic nationwide organization of professional women — and men — pursuing careers across the communications spectrum.”
A judge for the New Mexico competition wrote that Haussamen’s reporting on the Keller situation “demonstrates persistence required for investigative reporting, with a thoroughness in research and penchant for uncovering substantiating documents. His solid writing leads the reader along a clear path to his conclusion that lawmakers need to be compensated for their contributions to New Mexico’s governance.”
Haussamen thanked NFPW for the recognition and the NMPolitics.net community for supporting our work.
“We couldn’t do it without you,” he said.