Governor's spending, in-person meetings face scrutiny
Last updated 2/19/2021 at 4:34pm
At the same time Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was urging New Mexicans to not mix households, she was holding in-person meetings with Cabinet secretaries and small groups of legislators at the governor's mansion in Santa Fe.
The meetings, however, were sporadic and followed COVID-19 safe practices, such as social distancing and face masks, the governor's spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, said Thursday.
"There's a difference between inviting someone into your house for the Super Bowl or someone's birthday and having three or four Cabinet secretaries there to talk about their budgets amid an unprecedented economic downturn and to work out what we're going to propose or recommend to the Legislature given the changing economic forecast," he said.
"I mean," Stelnicki added, "the governor does live there, but it's not like she's inviting them into her living room."
Stelnicki didn't know whether people who met with Lujan Grisham had to pass a COVID-19 test beforehand.
Revelations about in-person meetings at the governor's mansion, which includes what Stelnicki called a "public side" where Lujan Grisham conducts business and a "private side" where she resides, emerged after a report about her discretionary fund spending between July and December.
According to documents released under a public records request, the governor racked up nearly $13,500 in spending over the second half of 2020.
Receipts show more than $6,500 on groceries, from Wagyu beef and tuna steaks to several purchases of alcohol, including bottles of tequila, vodka, gin, wine and beer.
Republican leaders pounced on the governor's spending, noting the news comes after she handed out salary increases ranging from $7,500 to $12,000 to several employees in her office.
"It really appears in the Governor's Office as if she really believes herself to be more privileged than everybody else in New Mexico," said House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.
Montoya said Lujan Grisham should be paying for food and booze out of her own pocket.
"I didn't realize the governor was so underpaid that she has to use discretionary money for things that she should be paying for herself," he said. "Legislators are all up here doing our job, and we're doing it on per diem."
House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, called the governor's purchases "unfortunate" and inappropriate.
"It's not what tax dollars ought to be spent for," he said. "In the time when people are hurting all over the state, using their tax dollars to buy Wagyu beef has got to be a little bit disenchanting to many people. I think it's just more of indication of the problem that we have had and the governor has had connecting with people."
Townsend accused the governor of "acting like she's better than everyone else," particularly by holding meetings at the mansion when she had advised New Mexicans to not bring households together.
Just before Thanksgiving, for example, the governor asked New Mexicans to "make the safest possible decisions this Thanksgiving."
"I know it's hard because we've had eight months where we can't be with our friends and families," she said at the time. "Do everything in your power not to mix households. I know that that's asking a lot because Thanksgiving is exactly how we celebrate, bringing our families from multiple households together. This is ripe for spreading this virus."
Though the governor did have people not in her household at the mansion, Stelnicki said she's "worked really hard to minimize her in-person interactions with other people," not only to set a good example to New Mexicans but keep herself, her fiancé and staff at the residence safe. He also said the mansion has not only been her "home base" but her office. While Lujan Grisham has conducted much of her business remotely, Stelnicki noted there are times when in-person meetings work best.
"The governor is managing the largest public health emergency the state has ever faced," he said.
Townsend said the governor says one thing but behaves another way.
"Those are the kinds of things that cause people to totally distrust the government," he said. "When they see these (messages) of, 'You need to stay home and you can't have your family for Christmas and you can't do this and you can't do that,' but I'm going to sit here and eat Wagyu beef and buy hundreds of dollars of alcohol with your tax dollars. What in the world would you expect them to think?"
The biggest purchase of booze happened at Sam's Club in September. A receipt shows more than $200 in spending for liquor, including at least five bottles of tequila, two bottles of vodka, two bottles of merlot and a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of gin.
The staff member who purchased the alcohol "might have been guilty of some optimistic thinking," Stelnicki said.
When the COVID-19 numbers in New Mexico "were looking a little better," the staffer saw the opportunity for a gathering with legislators or others as the holidays were approaching after a "long and difficult year," Stelnicki said.
"Of course, that didn't happen," he said, adding the bottles of booze remain unopened.
Stelnicki said the food wasn't solely for the governor but also for members of her staff, including maintenance workers and her security detail, who work around the clock, as well as people who attended an occasional meeting there. He said he didn't know why food was being purchased for staff members.
Groceries were also purchased for the governor to cook and bake, he said.
"The governor wanted to sort of try to make things and send them to people, like posole at Christmas," he said.
The receipts also showed several charges for dry cleaning, which Stelnicki said was for the governor's clothes for news conferences and other remote meetings. Even on Zoom, he said, the governor has to look like a governor and represent New Mexicans well.
"We're talking about $13,000 (in total contingency fund spending) in a budget of $7 billion," Stelnicki said. "It's absolutely the public's right and obligation to scrutinize the spending of public dollars, but I think that context is important."
Daniel J. Chacón writes for The Santa Fe New Mexican.