Thursday, May 20, 2010

Roundhouse Roundup: The GOP Demolition Derby

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 20, 2010

Vicious political attack ads. Big juicy steaks. iPods. Hooters.

This Republican gubernatorial race quickly is shaping up to be my kind of show.

I'm referring to the latest round of attacks between GOP candidates Susana Martinez and Allen Weh. What had been a relatively congenial race suddenly turned into a demolition derby following Sunday's release of the Albuquerque Journal poll showing Weh, who has put $1 million of his own money in the campaign, just 1 percentage point ahead of Martinez.

The very next day, Martinez was out with an ad calling Weh a "divisive party chairman" and accusing him of supporting "amnesty" for illegal immigrants — because back in 2007 Weh had backed the immigration reform plan being touted by those bleeding-heart liberals George W. Bush and John McCain.

But that ad might have been the equivalent of bringing a knife to a bazooka fight. By Wednesday, Weh was on television accusing "career politician" Martinez of "failing to pay taxes." In a cool little special effect, one of Martinez's hands in a black-and-white photo turn red when the announcer says "... auditors caught her red-handed."

The ad goes on to tell how Martinez, the longtime district attorney in Las Cruces, spent taxpayers' money on "extravagant dinners, luxury hotels, dinner at Hooters, even iPods."

And there's even one scene in which Martinez is shown standing in front of Gov. Bill Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, which in New Mexico GOP primary ads has the same desired effect as showing Darth Vader and Dr. Doom.

Both sides are wailing.

Weh vehemently denies he supports "amnesty" and said "Martinez broke Ronald Reagan's so-called 11th commandment (by attacking) a fellow Republican when she initiated the first false, negative and desperate attack." Martinez's campaign manager Adam Deguire said Weh "has stepped across the line and his attack is both slanderous, false and unbecoming of someone who claims to conduct himself honorably."

Don't worry. Eleventh commandments were made to be broken.

First the tax issue. No, Martinez wasn't caught cheating on her personal income taxes.

Weh's charge refers to a 2009 audit in which Martinez's office was criticized for employing 24 workers as "independent contractors" to destroy old closed-case files. The District Attorney's Office was liable for paying federal taxes for those workers, the auditor said. The auditor recommended the workers be hired as employees or contracted from a private agency, which would be responsible for the taxes. That's what happened as a result of the audit, the campaign said.

As for the extravagant dinners and luxury hotels, there are travel-expense records from Martinez's office showing one of her employees spent almost $599 for three nights at the Gaylord Opryland resort in Nashville in 2008. There are several meal receipts indicating Martinez and various staffers were reimbursed for meals, including several at a steak house in Phoenix in March 2008. (As per state policy, nobody asked to be reimbursed for alcoholic drinks listed on these receipts.)
And yes, Hooters appears not once, but twice in Martinez's expense accounts. One of her female employees ate at the Hooters in Miami (where the total bill, not including a vodka martini, was $17.86). Then, a few months later, another staff member enjoyed some hot wings and iced tea at a Hooters in Minneapolis. (Total bill, $14.91.) All expense account reimbursements have to be approved by the Department of Finance and Administration, the Martinez campaign pointed out.

This is the second time Hooters has come up in this campaign. As I reported in this column last year, Denish, the Democratic nominee for governor, received a $1,000 contribution from Albuquerque Hooters.

Then there's the iPods. Martinez's records include invoices for three iPod Nanos, which cost about $200 each plus postage and handling. For one of those, the state paid an extra $30 for overnight delivery.

No, these digital music players aren't being used for Martinez and her attorneys to rock out to Ted Nugent. Instead, the campaign said, Martinez and her staff use them to listen to witness and defendant statements and jail-phone calls.

Stay tuned. This is only going to get more interesting.