Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Denish to Reimburse for Political P.R.

Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s campaign fund will reimburse the state for money paid to a public relations officer who wrote press releases in 2004 related to election-year politics.

The total amount of the reimbursement is less than $800 but a spokesman for Denish said Tuesday it’s important that there be no perception questionable political activities. The money spent was from federal funds allocated to the state as part of a 2003 economic stimulus package.
Denish was state chairman of the John Kerry 2004 presidential campaign.

“Lt. Governor Denish firmly believes that a strict wall must exist between politics and official state work, and that’s why she has instructed her campaign to reimburse the state for this former contractor’s work for the days in question,” Denish’s chief of staff Josh Rosen wrote in a statement to reporters. “If a mistake was made, or even the perception is questionable, Lt. Governor Denish believes reimbursing the state is the responsible thing to do. That’s the high bar she has set and it’s the way she does business.”

Denish's office received a total of $225,000, though only a fraction of that was spent on the activities being questioned.

State Republicans in recent days have blasted Denish for spending some of her federal funds on hiring public-relations officers, one of whom billed the state for working on Christmas cards, decorating for a party and running errands for Denish.

The most vocal critics have been GOP gubernatorial candidates Allen Weh and Susanah Martinez. Denish is the likely Democratic nominee for governor next year.

Denish’s office released copies of three 2004 press releases. One was for an event with actor Leonardo DiCaprio in Albuquerque. Another was about Denish leading a “group of foot soldiers” in Albuquerque going door-to-door for Kerry. The third, on official state letterhead, was Denish praising Kerry’s selection of Sen. John Edwards as his running mate.

Invoices from contractor Lauren Cowdrey showed she billed the state for some political work. On a July 2004 invoice Cowdrey charged the state for eight hours of work, partly for a DNC media binder. This apparently was for the Democratic National Convention, which Denish attended in Boston at that time. A few days later, Cowdrey billed nine hours for duties including “work on Kerry for Saturday." This was three days before Kerry and Edwards came to New Mexico on a "whistle stop" train trip, stopping in Las Vegas, N.M. and Albuquerque. The money spent for this work is included in the $790 reimbursement.

(Denish isn’t the only state official who used state funds to pay for a news release praising Kerry’s choice of Edwards. On July 7 one of Gov. Bill Richardson’s spokesmen released a similar statement — also on state letterhead.)

Cowdrey was paid $23.50 an hour under her contract with Denish’s office.

In his statement, Rosen said, “The work done by this contract Public Information Officer relating to an event for Sen. Kerry or the 2004 election consisted of fielding media calls, providing logistical information about Lt. Governor Denish’s role and clarifying a remark on behalf of the Lt. Governor. But quite simply, the state should not have been invoiced for these press statements relating to the election. The Lt. Governor expressly forbids campaign work from being done from the state office and she was unaware that these charges were misapplied.”

Tuesday’s release of the press statement and the announcement the state would be reimbursed could be seen as Denish trying to get ahead of the controversy. News about the questionable expenditures first broke on the New Mexico Watchdog Web site, which is associated with the conservative Rio Grande Foundation, which Rosen earlier this week described as “a right-wing organization that exists solely to distort information and make partisan political attacks ...”

Cowdrey was one of two public-relations contractors who worked for Denish in 2003 and 2004 — which was before she had a budget for permanent public information officers. The office spent more than $32,000 for public relations officers. Other federal stimulus money spent by Denish included about $20,000 for a poll done for the state Children’s Cabinet, a group of Cabinet officers headed by Denish, about $16,000 for public service announcements for the Children’s Cabinet and $6,000 to re-design Denish’s Web site.

Denish’s office has stressed that all expenditures and invoices went through the standard Department of Finance and Administration process for approval of payment and that the state Auditor had no findings for the Lieutenant Governor’s Office in their annual audit.

Update: Here's a copy of the Kerry-Edwards news release

Edwards Release