Fairgrounds lease criticized in Senate hearing

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Current and former governmental appointees of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez criticized her administration on Monday for rushing through a 25-year lease in 2011 for a company to build a larger casino at the New Mexico fairgrounds.

Former State Board of Finance member Tom Tinnin told the Senate Rules Committee on Monday that the lease "didn't smell right." He resigned shortly before the board was to review the deal in late 2011.

The lease allowed the Downs of Albuquerque, which has long operated a horse-racing track and casino at the fairgrounds, to open a larger casino with more slot machines. Critics have questioned whether political contributions by track owners influenced the deal.

Former State Fair Commissioner Charlotte Rode outlined objections she's previously voiced that commissioners were excluded from much of the process.

"They wanted to keep the information secretive," Rode said.

Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor's office, defended the lease in a statement and dismissed the legislative 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," Knell said in a statement issued after the hearing.

The committee chairman, Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, is among five Democrats running for governor against Martinez this year.

No representative of the Martinez administration appeared before the committee, although Martinez, her political adviser and the state fair manager were invited. Only one GOP committee member attended.

The governor's 2010 campaign and her political action committee received about $70,000 in contributions from two Louisiana owners of the track and businesses connected to them. But Martinez officials have repeatedly said the contributions didn't play a role in the fairgrounds lease.

"The administration put this lease out for competitive bid, the winner was selected by an independent selection committee, and the administration negotiated a lease with the winning bidder that was in the best interests of the state and would keep the state fair open," Knell said.

Attorney General Gary King's office has been reviewing the deal, spokesman Phil Sisneros said in an interview.

"We have to separate rumors from fact, and all of that takes time," Sisneros said. King also is running for governor.

The FBI has questioned people about the lease, but the agency won't confirm or deny there is an investigation of the deal.

Commissioner Kenneth "Twister" Smith said he felt pressured to quickly approve the lease because he was repeatedly told a new lease was critical to the fair's financial success and it was needed before an older contract with the Downs expired in 2012.

Tinnin, Rode and Smith were appointed by the governor. Rode's term has expired.

The Downs was one of two companies that responded to a request for lease proposals from the fair. They had 30 days to provide their proposals.

Tinnin said the bidders should have been given more time because of the complexity of fairgrounds development. State requirements call for a minimum 30-day response time.

Administration officials have defended the lease process, saying competitive bidding was used rather than a "sole source" contracting arrangement attempted by former Gov. Bill Richardson's administration for a possible Downs deal before Martinez took office.

Tinnin, who served on the Fair Commission from 1997 to 2003, said he met with the governor to voice reservations about the lease process but Martinez told him "she would take it very personally if I were to disparage her people" in a public meeting. He later resigned, saying he felt it wrong that the governor tried to intimidate him.

Rode and Smith opposed the lease when it was endorsed on a 4-3 vote in November 2011. The Board of Finance approved the lease the next month, with the governor supporting it.

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Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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