“This could be the same old wolf in a new, improved merino wool coat,” former Albuquerque City Councilor Hess Yntema told me. He was talking about a noteworthy feature of Mayor Martin Chavez' re-election campaign. Of the more than $860,000 in cash raised by Chavez, $105,000 has been paid to his former chief of staff, Teri Baird, and her brand new consulting company.
Baird previously played the role of Chavez' bagman in the ABQPAC scandal. She helped organize ABQPAC as a political action committee, when it actually was a conduit to move money to Chavez from developers, city contractors and city employees. Baird helped gather the dough, and when Chavez wanted money, she told ABQPAC to write the check.
Checks written to Chavez personally came in sums of $1,000 and $2,500—up to as high as $10,000. He pocketed about $30,000 and ABQPAC paid another $30,000 in personal expenses for him and his wife. I've always wondered how Chavez reported these transactions on his tax returns. He says he repaid the money, but I doubt returning graft after you've been caught is deductible.
As a registered political action committee, ABQPAC was required to report its income and expenditures to the Secretary of State. The payments to Chavez drew attention, and led Yntema, Common Cause and Vecinos United to prosecute ethics charges against him. Our toothless Ethics Board couldn't help but find him guilty, but did no more than scold Chavez.
Now there's even more money flowing from city contractors, patronage employees and developers to the very same Teri Baird. This time, the money goes to the Chavez campaign, which then cuts checks to Baird's limited liability corporation, Premier Consulting. Just as ABQPAC was formed shortly before Chavez took office, Premier was formed only last December, just in time for campaign fundraising season.
While the Chavez campaign must report payments to Baird's Premier Consulting, as a private corporation, Premier is not required to explain what it does with those monies, including whether any went to Chavez. If Premier is another version of ABQPAC, this lack of a reporting requirement would enable it to evade detection.
I contacted the Chavez campaign spokesperson and asked for a copy of Premier's contract. I was told it wasn't public information, but she would get back to me. I also asked about the terms of Premier's compensation. She didn't know.
You can't divine Premier's contract terms from Chavez' reports. One of the first expenditures was $4,000 to Baird in July 2004. Two more $4,000 payments to Baird followed. Then the checks went to Premier at the rate of $6,363, later increasing to $8,485, then, bada bing!, a plump payment of $25,000. The last report was September 9. At this rate, through Election Day, even without any more $25,000 bonanzas, Baird and Premier Consulting will garner around $150,000—more than mayoral candidate Brad Winter may raise altogether.
Since Chavez' spokesperson couldn't answer my questions, I e-mailed Baird. The Chavez campaign's website helpfully lists her as a staff member. I asked if she would provide a copy of Premier's contract or divulge its terms. I asked if Premier or she had disbursed any money to Chavez or on his behalf to any third parties. I also asked if Premier had any clients other than Chavez (it hasn't appeared on other candidates' reports).
I posed similar questions to Chavez' challengers. Winter's campaign said they are using HF Consulting, the same consulting firm Sen. Pete Domenici uses. They work on a combination fixed fee and commission basis, and, no, Winter has not received any campaign funds for personal use. Eric Griego's finance director draws a very modest salary. Griego's consultant, the Soltari firm, receives $8,500 per month for four and a half employees providing consulting, organizing, media relations and research, as well as fundraising services. They offered to let me see their accounts to prove nothing goes back to Griego. David Steele, who is pouring much of his own money into his bid, simply laughed when I asked if he had a paid fundraiser.
The ABQPAC hearings revealed that Chavez had scoured the City Charter for a way to exploit his office. There's little reason to think he's been discouraged from trying again. After all, the message from the Ethics Board (and the district attorney and attorney general) was that graft isn't all that serious an offence.
Chavez has had scandals involving money every time he's been in City Hall. His first term, it was the “Cigar Socials,” where fat cats gave money directly to his wife. His second go around, we got ABQPAC. I don't know exactly what he's up to now. But since he's done it before, with the same person who's again handling money for him, it's certainly fair to ask.
I really would like to know if Yntema is right about that wolf wearing different sheep's clothing. But I still haven't heard back from Chavez' spokesperson, and Baird has yet to answer my questions.