Transparency? What transparency? Public money but private dismissals in NM

By Rob Nikolewski on November 18, 2013
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By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – may have been the chief executive officer of the for nearly eight years. He may have been paid $155,000 a year.

But last Wednesday, he was fired from his job without any explanation by the , whose chairman, refuses to discuss the decision, even though the lottery board reports to the publicly funded state Legislature.

NO REASONS GIVEN: After eight years as head of the NM Lottery, Tom Romero was fired. But the lottery’s board members won’t say why.

The 7-0 decision by the board came after a 70-minute executive session that was and an open session that lasted less than four minutes.

When asked by why Romero was dismissed, Salzwedel wouldn’t give any reasons.

“It’s a personnel item, period,” he said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss it.”

Salzwedel confirmed that Romero’s contract does not expire until July 31, 2015, adding that Romero will be paid for the rest of 2013, all of 2014 and seven months of 2015.

A quick calculation shows that Romero stands to earn about $265,000 since losing his job.

Salzwedel said the lottery is not technically a state agency.

“The lottery itself is not funded by any governmental entity,” he said. “It’s all self-funded,” Salzwedel said. “The money derived from the sales (of lottery tickets) take care of operational expenses as well as the winnings and distribution.”

But the primary beneficiary of the New Mexico Lottery is the program, which is administered by the , another entity funded by taxpayers’ dollars.

And when asked who the board members answer to, Salzwedel said, “We would report to the Legislature.”

The secrecy surrounding Romero’s termination rankles longtime Roundhouse veteran .

“We need a response,” Varela said. “I thought Tom Romero did a helluva job.”

“If it was a 7-0 vote and took just four minutes, something’s going on,” state told New Mexico Watchdog. “But I don’t know anymore than you do.”

It also doesn’t sit well with the .

“Considering the amount of public money that New Mexico Lottery handles, it is disturbing that they have not released any information on the departure their CEO,” , NMFOG’s interim executive director, told New Mexico Watchdog in a statement. “Any organization that is responsible for handling public money should be as transparent as possible about significant changes in leadership.”

The Romero firing marks the second time in little more than a year that a high-profile leader in New Mexico stepped down only to have the governing body making the decision refuse to tell the public why.

In October 2012, New Mexico State University President Barbara Couture and the university’s Board of Regents came to a “mutually-agreed on a separation agreement.”

Couture, who was already earning $385,000 a year, received a $453,000 buyout.

The anger over the “golden parachute” agreement intensified after the Board of Regents refused to say why Couture left.

“Transparency is a core value of New Mexico State and we remain committed to it,” NMSU Regent Javier Gonzales said at the time. “But these are sensitive negotiations — people’s livelihoods and reputations are at stake.”

, isn’t buying it.

“I think the public certainly deserves some explanations because it could be indicative of other issues or problems,” Rue said. “To do that in isolation and expect us (as a Legislature) to go along with it and look the other way is bad policy.”

, who is also a lawyer, said he understands why decision makers often don’t offer details.

“Oftentimes in these personnel matters, the reason that things may seem lacking in transparency is that the settlement agreement between the individual being terminated may be that they’re willing to take less from the government — which is a good thing for the taxpayer — in return for there not being any negative attention to their employment history or record,” Cervantes said.

But when a board makes its decision in private, Cervantes concedes, there’s no way to tell if the decision makers are merely protecting themselves in the process.

“I think they need to go back and look at the contracts they’re requiring these people to sign,” Rue said. “I think that’s part of problem — the way these contracts are structured. I think oftentimes they tie their own hands as to what can be disclosed and revealed.”

“There needs to be a balance that’s struck,” Cervantes said.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter

Posted under Capitol Report.
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2 Comments For This Post So Far

  1. David
    10:17 am on November 18th, 2013

    Maybe that’s why the lottery is almost out of money?

  2. Dan Secrist
    6:37 pm on November 19th, 2013

    This is why the Legislative Finance Committee has subpoena power.

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