Daniels Fund Closes Down

New Mexico Family'S Ties Severed

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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They never knew what hit ’em.

In a swift move orchestrated by former Colorado U.S. Senator Hank Brown, the billion-dollar charitable foundation created by Bill Daniels, a Denver-based cable television magnate with strong family and business ties to New Mexico, has been neatly highjacked and converted into yet another tax shelter and money funnel for right-wing, political causes.

The hostile takeover was carried out in November by the foundation's board of directors just months after the death of Jack Daniels—Bill's brother, the former chairman of the board and a long-time New Mexico political powerhouse. Thanks to Brown's reorganizing efforts, the Albuquerque office of the Daniels Foundation was ordered closed at that board meeting, an action carried out during the first weeks in January.

It was a step that would never have been attempted while Jack was alive, and it caught his daughter, New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, completely by surprise. Denish, the last member of the founding family on the fund's board, now faces the grim prospect that Brown's machinations may not stop until she has been forced off as well.

Ostensibly a measure to cut administrative costs, closing the New Mexico office and laying off its small local staff means the dozens of non-profit educational and community programs it had assisted here will now be 500 miles away from the foundation geographically; light years away in terms of attitude and sympathies. The Albuquerque office facilitated in the neighborhood of $1 million in charitable donations statewide, annually.

Because the closing of the Albuquerque (and the Salt Lake City and Sheridan, Wyo. offices as well) coincided with awarding a $100,000 raise to Brown, the Fund's President and CEO (bringing his salary up to a mere $400,000 annually—now that's charity!) and with the grand opening of a lavish new corporate office in Cherry Creek, Colo., it is a little hard to swallow the declarations of “economizing” being offered by the fund's public relations folks.

No, the sad reality is that Brown and John Saeman, the Vice Chairman of the Board, have simply conspired to snatch the foundation away from the family that created it and from the vision that animated it. And their little putsch will leave New Mexico and the entire Rocky Mountain West without one of the most promising resources for civic improvement in history.

For starters, the fund has announced it will no longer fund advocacy efforts, a definite backward step and one intended to send a message: We don't like boat rockers; just sit quietly and mind your manners or we'll cut you off without a pence.

You have to particularly feel badly for our Lt. Gov. Denish. She had begun an ambitious campaign to weld alliances between public sector social and health services funding and the resources of a number of private philanthropic organizations in the state, with Daniels' local staff taking a strong role. That effort won't stop immediately, but the long-range prospects suddenly became a lot less promising.

The timing of the move seems deliberately intended to take advantage of her grief over losing her father earlier this summer. Brown, who once headed the agribusiness meat packing giant Monfort (made infamous in the best-selling exposé Fast Food Nation), apparently dipped back into that experience to come up with the strategy that won over enough members on the Daniels board to outvote Denish.

The gradual shift in composition of the board eventually produced the vote to shut down the Albuquerque office. Naturally, it becomes doubtful that the Daniels Foundation will exert a leadership role in creating grass roots change initiatives that had been their hallmark for years.

So, what does this all mean for New Mexico? Does it matter at all to an ordinary Albuquerque resident who's trying to pay off his credit card debt, find affordable family health insurance or keep your kids in school that some wealthy guys in Colorado just finessed some official from our state out of a voice on her family's foundation board?

Well, it's an incredible loss. With Daniels playing a major role as a conduit, money and resources from national foundations were beginning to be attracted our way, the sums of money that actually can make a difference.

New Mexico taxpayers cannot simply will our way out of the bottom of the barrel status our poverty has earned. The state needs help. And the assistance of the mega-foundations offers great promise as a strategy for giving us the boost we need to get moving economically.

With Denish uniquely situated to work on a parallel path to insure that public dollars would be available to partner for better schools, better health care, economic development and community services, the future was looking much brighter.

The ambush at Cherry Creek might not make a very photogenic matinee movie scenario, but in important ways it looks like it will be an act of violence every bit as treacherous as any Old West gunplay.

We can only hope that the initiatives carefully nurtured by Daniels in its short life in New Mexico will not be allowed to completely wither and disappear. It's hard enough to turn any state around without having to fight rear-guard actions at the same time. a

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Jerry can be reached at jerry@alibi.com.

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