Governor uses contingency fund for wine, tinwork, inaugural breakfast

March 22, 2019

The job of governor comes with plenty of perks, including a $72,000-a-year expense account to pay for, well, whatever — from parties to dry-cleaning and gifts.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham reported spending $10,329.18 from what is known as her contingency fund during her first two months in office.

Reports from her staff list expenses ranging from wine and tinwork to a $3,600 breakfast the day after her inauguration for family and friends.

The reports are the first furnished to the public under a law that took effect Jan. 1, bringing increased transparency to an expense fund long used by the state’s leaders but shrouded in secrecy.

The state typically has provided its governors money to cover “contingent expenses,” which has come to include soirees and goods for the governor’s mansion. But in the past, the spending was expressly exempt from audit and governors were not obligated to disclose their expenses.

Gov. Susana Martinez, who left office Dec. 31, began furnishing quarterly reports to the Department of Finance and Administration. Instead of detailing each expense, however, she lumped expenses into five categories.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, sponsored legislation last year to ensure records of the spending could be audited and subject to the state’s transparency law. It also required the governor to file monthly reports on expenses, including an itemized list.

Lawmakers amended the bill so it would not take effect until Martinez had left office, and she signed the legislation into law.

“The new requirements are very obviously a good thing. It’s public money. The public deserves to know where it’s going,” said Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s communications director.

Lujan Grisham’s office turned over the first two months of reports, as well as receipts. The biggest expenses included the post-inaugural breakfast and two receptions at the governor’s mansion — one on American Indian Day and another on African-American Day. The two events cost a combined $2,843.64.

But the receipts for January and February, first detailed by the Associated Press and obtained by The New Mexican, show all manner of other purchases.

Mansion staff has used the fund to buy flowers, coffee and bottled water, as well as to pay for dry-cleaning and internet service. Receipts also show a $699 expense at a tinwork shop in Santa Fe for items including soap dishes.

Receipts from grocery runs to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Sprouts and Market Street also show purchases for foods ranging from lobster tails, prosciutto and filet mignon to pizza and biscochitos. One receipt from Valentine’s Day listed a chocolate heart cake.

The governor’s staff also appears to have sometimes neglected to take reusable bags when shopping in Santa Fe, where stores charge 10 cents per paper bag they provide.

Records show the fund was used to purchase at least $90 worth of wine, too.

Mary Brophy, the director of the governor’s mansion and the person responsible for signing off on many of the contingency fund expenses, said Lujan Grisham had invited groups to the residence for occasions such as American Indian Day and had over lawmakers during the legislative session.

“It’s a bonding opportunity,” Brophy said.

Brophy held the same role during part of the Bill Richardson administration and has said governors should use the mansion as a venue to showcase New Mexico.

But other governors eschewed the mansion and the contingency funds, dismissing what they have portrayed as Santa Fe hobnobbing.

Martinez touted that she used the contingency funds and mansion less extravagantly than her predecessor, Richardson. A former U.S. energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations, he played host to former Polish President Lech Walesa and actors and celebrities, including Robert Duvall, Kevin Spacey, Ted Nugent and Jessica Simpson.

Martinez, however, drew scrutiny to the contingency fund in late 2015, when she used it to pay for what turned out to be a raucous holiday party at a Santa Fe hotel that prompted complaints to police.

The former governor ended up spending around $63,800 in contingency funds from January through November 2018, according to records obtained by The New Mexican through the state’s open-records law. That amounted to slightly more money each month than Lujan Grisham has reported spending.

Stelnicki said the Governor’s Office will post monthly reports on contingency fund expenses on its website.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the disclosures are commendable but added that the reports need context and details that will help the public understand how purchases are used.

“While the release of this data complies with the letter of the law, it falls short of the law’s spirit,” she said. “It would be much more transparent if the numbers were accompanied by specifics on who participated in the events the items were used for and if there were any outcomes beneficial to taxpayers.”