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Incumbent cites successes; foe wants audit

October 9, 2018

As the man responsible for overseeing the safekeeping of billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money, State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg has spent many sleepless nights since he took office in January 2015.

“It is truly the most challenging job I’ve ever had,” said Eichenberg, 66. “It keeps you up nights.”

While the $85,000-a-year job is tough, Eichenberg said he believes he’s doing it well and that the work is rewarding, which is why the former state senator from Albuquerque hopes voters will elect him to a second four-year term in November.

But his Republican opponent, who also happens to be his neighbor, said the State Treasurer’s Office needs a new leader, someone who hasn’t been the subject of bad press.

Arthur Castillo, 69, who served as chief finance officer of the State Treasurer’s Office from 2006 to 2009, said he’s running for the seat because he’s read or heard that the office is in disarray.

“My concern is not just with the current administration but goes back to the Vigil and Montoya era,” he said, referring to former state treasurers Robert Vigil and his predecessor, Michael Montoya. “A lot of things happened during that time.”

In 2005, Vigil and Montoya were charged with racketeering and extortion in a kickback scheme.

Federal prosecutors accused the pair, both Democrats, of pocketing tens of thousands of dollars from investment advisers in exchange for steering state business their way. Montoya served as state treasurer from 1995 to 2002, and Vigil, who was Montoya’s deputy, served from 2003 to 2005. Both served time in prison.

Though Castillo said the need exists to “make some changes” in the State Treasurer’s Office, he said he doesn’t know exactly what they would be until he’s in the job.

“I’m going to request a new audit and, if I can, I’m going to ask for a forensic audit because as far as I know, the State Treasurer’s Office has never had a forensic audit, and I think it’s about time to go in there and really see all the nuts and bolts, see what’s really happened,” he said. “Who knows what things could be hidden. Could be funds. Could be anything that’s hidden because they were not scrutinized as tightly as I felt they should’ve been.”

Eichenberg said his office is operating smoothly, though it was somewhat of a rough start.

When he took office, Eichenberg said eight high-ranking employees retired. They included the deputy treasurer, cash manager and chief investment officer. Though it was a challenge to fill the positions, he brought on new employees who have developed “better ways of reconciliation processes” and “a better way to do projections of our liquidity.”

“We earned over $49 million for this last fiscal year,” he said.

Eichenberg, a licensed real estate broker and general contractor, has a bankruptcy in his record. But he said his experience makes him the better, more qualified candidate for the job.

He served two terms as Bernalillo County treasurer, starting in 1974 at the age of just 22. In 2004, former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, appointed Eichenberg director of the state’s Property Tax Division.

“I don’t quit and that’s the most important thing. That truly separates me from my opponent,” he said. “I’ve never quit and walked out of an office before because that’s what he did to [former State Treasurer James B. Lewis]…One day he was there, and the next day they’re looking for him. He had packed up his box and walked out. Didn’t even tell [Lewis] he was leaving.”

Eichenberg said Lewis recounted the story. Repeated efforts to reach Lewis, who now works as a senior adviser for public safety under Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, were unsuccessful. Castillo denied Eichenberg’s version of events.

“The claim by Mr. Eichenberg that I ‘quit’ or ‘walked out’ of the treasurer’s office is absolutely false and quite shameful,” he said in a statement. “I am not surprised by his statement since his reputation has seriously come into question while serving as state treasurer. New Mexicans won’t be fooled by Mr. Eichenberg.”

In an earlier interview, Castillo said he’s been troubled with negative news reports about Eichenberg, who was accused of making racial and sexist remarks in 2015 by the administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. That year, the State Personnel Office ended a deal to provide human resources services to Eichenberg’s office.

Neither State Personnel Office Director Justin Najaka nor a spokesman for Martinez returned messages seeking comment.

As he did in 2015, Eichenberg called the accusations false and politically motivated.

“Stop and think about it,” he said. “The State Personnel Office and Justin Najaka would not be foolish enough if it wasn’t political to say anything about a state employee because state employees have rights, too. You don’t discuss anything in public on a state employee… and I’m a state employee.”

It’s not the first time Eichenberg has faced similar accusations. He faced claims of bigotry against gays, women and Hispanics from his Democratic opponent, John Wertheim, in the 2014 primary election.

Wertheim, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, mailed out attack ads accusing Eichenberg of, among other charges, “a record of discriminating against Hispanics.” The accusation stemmed from a ruling by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, which found that Eichenberg wrongly fired a Hispanic female employee while serving as the Bernalillo County treasurer. Eichenberg has said that the woman’s work performance, not her race, led to her firing.

Eichenberg also faced criticism in 2016 for handing out hefty raises to some employees, who Eichenberg said had taken on extra duties.

For Castillo, the negative publicity is reason enough for voters to give Eichenberg the boot.

“From all that I’ve read, all that I’ve seen, all that I’ve heard, I’d be reluctant to say he has done a good job,” he said.

Castillo, a former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in December, almost didn’t make the ballot.

In February, a lawyer who has worked for the state Democratic Party filed a lawsuit charging that Castillo did not obtain enough valid signatures for a spot on the ballot. A judge, however, ruled that Castillo had just enough.

“They’ll do almost anything to get rid of you,” Castillo said.

The State Treasurer’s Office has myriad responsibilities, from managing and investing the state’s operating cash to providing banking assistance and services to state agencies. The state treasurer also serves on 13 boards and commissions, including the State Investment Council and the Board of Finance, making it an influential post when it comes to policy.

Eichenberg called his service on the 13 boards and commissions “the most time-consuming part of my job.”

Both candidates are largely self-funding their campaigns.

“That’s because I believe in what I’m doing,” Castillo said. “I wouldn’t spend that much money on a losing cause.”

Eichenberg said he “got into the habit” of funding his own campaigns from the time he ran for Bernalillo County treasurer. When he ran for the state Senate in 2008, a race he won, he said he loaned his campaign $150,000, which he said he eventually wrote off.

Eichenberg has about $30,000 in the bank while Castillo has about $1,500 cash on hand, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

In addition to having more money, Eichenberg also has considerably more campaign debt: about $240,000.

Eichenberg said the primary race against Wertheim four years ago proved costly.

“I think he spent in excess of $300,000,” Eichenberg said. “I had to lend the campaign what we felt was the minimum amount to survive the primary.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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