- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Current and former governmental appointees of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez criticized her administration on Monday for rushing through a 25-year lease in 2011 for a company to build a larger casino at the New Mexico fairgrounds.

Former State Board of Finance member Tom Tinnin told the Senate Rules Committee on Monday that the lease “didn’t smell right.” He resigned shortly before the board was to review the deal in late 2011.

The lease allowed the Downs of Albuquerque, which has long operated a horse-racing track and casino at the fairgrounds, to open a larger casino with more slot machines. Critics have questioned whether political contributions by track owners influenced the deal.

Former State Fair Commissioner Charlotte Rode outlined objections she’s previously voiced that commissioners were excluded from much of the process.

“They wanted to keep the information secretive,” Rode said.

Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor’s office, defended the lease in a statement and dismissed the legislative hearing.

“That was nothing more than a taxpayer-funded political circus orchestrated by a desperate candidate for governor where not a single new piece of information was revealed,” Knell said in a statement issued after the hearing.

The committee chairman, Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, is among five Democrats running for governor against Martinez this year.

No representative of the Martinez administration appeared before the committee, although Martinez, her political adviser and the state fair manager were invited. Only one GOP committee member attended.

The governor’s 2010 campaign and her political action committee received about $70,000 in contributions from two Louisiana owners of the track and businesses connected to them. But Martinez officials have repeatedly said the contributions didn’t play a role in the fairgrounds lease.

“The administration put this lease out for competitive bid, the winner was selected by an independent selection committee, and the administration negotiated a lease with the winning bidder that was in the best interests of the state and would keep the state fair open,” Knell said.

Attorney General Gary King’s office has been reviewing the deal, spokesman Phil Sisneros said in an interview.

“We have to separate rumors from fact, and all of that takes time,” Sisneros said. King also is running for governor.

The FBI has questioned people about the lease, but the agency won’t confirm or deny there is an investigation of the deal.

Commissioner Kenneth “Twister” Smith said he felt pressured to quickly approve the lease because he was repeatedly told a new lease was critical to the fair’s financial success and it was needed before an older contract with the Downs expired in 2012.

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