COMMENTARY: After I published my column Wednesday about legislative conflicts — which highlighted two situations involving State Auditor Tim Keller — I received this email from the chief of staff in the auditor’s office, Sunalei Stewart:
Your story is factually incorrect and very misleading. We would appreciate a correction.
When it comes to conflicts, the timeline matters as does the entity involved. Keller’s statement in 2011 that Laguna Development Corp. was not a client is correct.
- Blue Stone did a half day training workshop with Laguna Construction Corp. in 2010 (not related to gaming). This was the only work that was done for them.
- Keller’s quote in 2011 was accurate (no Laguna Pueblo related entity was a client).
- Two years later, in 2013, the firm did some work for the Laguna Water Authority (not related to gaming).
- The firm never worked with the Laguna Pueblo Development Corp (which they communicated to you) or any entity involved in the Downs deal.
Your article makes some good structural points about a citizen legislature. We’ve only ever asked that you be fair with respect to the facts, and we don’t think this piece captures what actually occurred.
I’ve talked with Stewart and decided no correction is warranted. But I wanted to share Stewart’s email to be fully transparent, and explain my reasoning for not issuing a correction so you can understand and share your thoughts.
At issue is this: While he was an unpaid state senator before becoming auditor, Keller also worked for Blue Stone Strategy Group, which advises tribal communities on things like economic development and governance.
Keller has never publicly disclosed a list of clients. But as NMPolitics.net reported on Aug. 24, a document given to me by a former Blue Stone employee, which appears to be a company client list, includes Laguna Pueblo in 2010 and Laguna Pueblo’s utility agency in 2013. Until Stewart’s email on Wednesday, neither Keller nor Blue Stone had ever confirmed the Laguna entities as clients.
In fact, here’s what Keller said in 2011 when asked about Laguna Pueblo (not Laguna Development Corp., as Stewart incorrectly claimed in his email):
“They’re not a client of mine.”
That’s what Keller has said all along. And he reiterated that in an interview with me in July of this year, saying he doesn’t mind people asking the question “because it’s also easy to answer.”
It’s relevant because Laguna Development Corp. — a company owned by Laguna Pueblo — was the losing bidder for a 25-year lease to operate a casino and racetrack at the state fair grounds. And as a senator Keller repeatedly criticized the Martinez Administration’s awarding of that lease to The Downs at Albuquerque, even accusing the governor of pay-to-play and calling for an attorney general investigation.
The state fair grounds are located in the Senate district Keller represented. His constituents, like Laguna Pueblo, had a direct interest in The Downs deal.
I believe Keller’s criticism — when both his constituents and a Blue Stone client had an interest in the situation — created a conflict, or at least the appearance of one. That’s not entirely his fault. As I wrote in Wednesday’s column, our legislative structure is flawed. Unless we pay a reasonable salary, we can’t expect lawmakers to always avoid conflicts between their jobs and legislative duties.
But we can demand that they try to avoid conflicts. When they can’t, we should expect them to be honest with us about it.
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.