New Mexico Will Investigate Racetrack Lease

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King will investigate the 25-year lease signed in 2011 granting racino operator Downs of Albuquerque to open a larger casino at the state fairgrounds. State Senate Majority Whip Tim Keller, who requested the investigation, said the lease may not be valid.

New Mexico Senate Majority Whip Tim Keller recently announced he will ask Attorney General Gary King to open up an investigation into the State Fair racino deal. The announcement followed a hearing of the Senate Rules Committee that reviewed the 25-year lease signed in 2011 allowing racetrack and casino operator Downs of Albuquerque to open a larger casino at the state fairgrounds, where it has leased property since 1985. Individuals connected with the lease process have said political contributions from Downs owners may have swayed the deal. Representatives from Governor Susana Martinez’ office have repeatedly stated that ,000 in political contributions from two Louisiana owners of the Downs did not affect the fairgrounds lease.

Former State Board of Finance member Tom Tinnin, and former State Fair Commissioners Charlotte Rode and Kenneth “Twister” Smith all testified at the hearing. Tinnin, who served on the Fair Commission from 1997 to 2003 and resigned just prior to the board’s review of the deal, said the lease deal “didn’t smell right.” He said he told Martinez he had concerns about the lease assignment but she told him “she would take it very personally if I were to disparage her people” in a public meeting. Tinnin later said he felt the governor tried to intimidate him and he resigned. The lease was approved on a 4-3 vote in November 2011. The Board of Finance, with the governor’s support, approved the lease the following month.

Former State Fair Commissioner Charlotte Rode said commissioners were excluded from most of the lease negotiations because Martinez’ representatives “wanted to keep the information secretive.” Smith noted, “Look at the agenda and the minutes. We never every talked about business at meetings, ever.”

Said Keller, “The three commissioners who testified today are Republicans and Governor-appointees. They were willing to speak out in the face of great partisan pressure from the administration, to do what’s right and tell us what really happened on the Downs deal. Given all we’ve heard, I urge the AG to open an investigation on this immediately. I’m not sure that this lease is even valid.”

Martinez, her political adviser and the state fair manager were invited to the hearing but did not attend. Spokesman Enrique Knell defended the lease and said of the hearing, “That was nothing more than a taxpayer-funded political circus orchestrated by a desperate candidate for governor where not a single new piece of information was revealed. What you saw were people with incredible axes to grind, all of whom have had their wild-eyed accusations repeatedly discredited.” Committee Chairman state Senator Linda Lopez is one of five Democrats challenging Martinez for governor.

Keller also is the sponsor of a bill that would create the Office of the State Fair connected to the Tourism Department. The bill would eliminate the current State Fair Commission and replace it with a Fairground commission that would meet quarterly instead of the current once a year.