August 28, 2017

NM land commissioner says investment council censure is a political play

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Aubrey Dunn

Rifts within political parties are nothing new. The Democratic National Committee is still reeling from infighting that was exposed during the lead-up to the election it lost to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Even here in New Mexico, while the Democratic divide is less pronounced, there is already a long list of Democrats vying for nominations for state and federal elections.

Now, a contentious meeting last week to discuss state investments may have shown how New Mexico Republicans are divided, too.

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn believes the State Investment Council’s punitive action against him has at least something to do with his run for Congress—and he says that Gov. Susana Martinez and one of her prominent advisors are to blame.

Dunn has long spoken out that he and Martinez do not see eye to eye. But after last week’s SIC meeting, Dunn accused Martinez of playing political games.

Dunn and three other members of the council were censured for not signing a code of conduct that would, in part, prohibit members from disclosing what was discussed in closed executive sessions. The other three members include New Mexico Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, former Democratic Senator Tim Jennings and former Republican Senator Leonard Lee Rawson.

The censure also bars those members from attending executive sessions and voting on issues discussed behind closed doors.

While Dunn said he took issue with what he saw as the code’s lack of transparency, he also accused Martinez and her political advisor, Jay McCleskey, of trying to sink his campaign for the congressional seat currently held by Rep. Steve Pearce.

A Martinez spokesman dismissed Dunn’s claim of political angling and said the code of conduct that Dunn and three others refused to sign was approved months ago.

“Suddenly, Mr. Dunn is making illogical excuses for not wanting to acknowledge good rules for government conduct,” spokesman Joseph Cueto wrote in an email. “The question isn’t why the Code exists, the question is why Mr. Dunn won’t acknowledge it.”

The code of conduct in question, among other things, prohibits members from discussing matters that take place in closed executive sessions.

Martinez’s advisor, McCleskey, has been a lightning rod for criticism during both her campaigns and her time in office. Some state lawmakers refer to a “fifth floor” of the state capitol building, suggesting that he has pull over the governor’s decisions.

Dunn alleged, for example, that Martinez used a special session focused on increasing criminal penalties as a campaign tactic. With legislative elections just weeks away, Martinez called for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New Mexico.

“When the governor went in and called the special session, she put the death penalty on there, not for the citizens of New Mexico, but she put it on there so that she could have [former Democratic Senate leader] Michael Sanchez on record for voting against the death penalty,” Dunn told NM Political Report. “It’s the same thing with me.”

Now, Dunn said, McCleskey and Martinez may be trying to influence a congressional race by making him look bad.

Dunn said “it’s well-known” in the state Republican party that McCleskey has some part in running the congressional campaign of Monty Newman. Newman is a former chairman of the New Mexico Republican party and former mayor of Hobbs—and one of four Republicans vying to fill Pearce’s seat as he leaves Congress to run for governor.

During last week’s SIC meeting, both Dunn and Eichenberg had left the meeting early.

“I’d like to make just one point, for the record,” Martinez said, noting their absence. “They both chose to leave before this item was discussed.”

She continued: “Their input has not been not included, as they chose to leave and will not be considered because they’re not here to share with us.”

Dunn and Eichenberg are on the council in accordance with the council’s rules, but Jennings and Rawson, were appointed by state lawmakers. Considered public members, both Rawson and Jennings took issue with Martinez calling out Dunn and Eichenberg for leaving early.

Rawson called her actions “inappropriate.”

Jennings said both Dunn and Eichenberg have obligations for their elected positions they may not be able to avoid.

“That was just a cheap shot,” Jennings said.

As for Dunn, he said, “I am worse than pissed,” and provided a copy of his calendar for the day of the council meeting.

The calendar shows that he was scheduled that morning to be at the SIC meeting from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. It also showed a meeting at 11:30, which Dunn said he was late for because he stayed longer than he expected at the SIC meeting.

Instead of two hours, the SIC meeting lasted for more than four, with members eating lunch during the meeting.

Now Dunn said he plans to file a federal lawsuit against Martinez and the council for keeping him and the other censured members from voting on key issues.

It’s unclear whether the three others will join the lawsuit, but Rawson hinted he was at staying out of it, saying the issue may be blown out of proportion.

“I think it just has to have some time and let cooler heads prevail,” Rawson said.

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