There’s endless potential for abuse and corruption in our public universities’ secretive nonprofit fundraising foundations, as the University of New Mexico community is discovering.
State Attorney General Hector Balderas is investigating a 2015 UNM golf junket to Scotland. Public funds paid for boosters to attend, which Balderas says appears to violate the anti-donation clause in the N.M. Constitution. The university illegally hid the use of public money for the boosters’ travel from the media. State Auditor Tim Keller is conducting a wide-ranging special audit of UNM athletics.
The university says an anonymous donor has given the UNM Foundation, its nonprofit fundraising arm, $25,000 to cover the inappropriate use of public money.
That anonymity is concerning. A secret donor is helping UNM whitewash a gross misuse of public dollars.
These aren’t new issues. I raised questions a decade ago about the New Mexico State University Foundation keeping its donor list secret. At the time, the foundation was supplementing the compensation of the university president and men’s basketball coach with money from secret donors. Regents gave then-President Michael Martin a retention bonus of $100,000—with 70 percent anonymously funded—and a $6,000-a-month housing allowance that was also anonymously funded.
Here’s the concern: University officials decide which businesses get contracts. They engage in economic development with the land they own. They can form partnerships with medical schools and others.
Without sunshine, the potential for pay-to-play is immense. Give me that contract and I’ll give you a raise.
The issue became clear for me in 2007 when then-NMSU men’s basketball coach Reggie Theus showed up at a Las Cruces City Council meeting to endorse a developer’s planned 6,000-acre project. That came days after NMSU decided that Theus’ contract would include $100,000 in compensation from an anonymous donor.
That developer later said he wasn’t the donor helping compensate Martin and Theus. But without formal disclosure, how would we know for certain?
This battle for transparency is playing out across the nation. The Chicago Tribune, for example, has gone after records from the foundation that supports the College of DuPage in Illinois.
Legally, the question of whether donor records are public comes down to the degree of separation between a university and its nonprofit foundation, in addition to a state’s public records laws. In response to a complaint I filed in 2007, then-N.M. Attorney General Gary King’s office said state law allows the NMSU Foundation to keep its donor list secret, in addition to government officials’ emails related to foundation business.
Conveniently, King’s wife served on the UNM Foundation Board of Directors at the time.
UNM’s foundation took in more than $36 million in donations in 2015. NMSU’s received more than $18 million in 2014. Both often conceal the identities of donors who are funding public projects and salaries.
That violates at least the spirit of the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. That law intends “that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees,” which it calls “an essential function of a representative government.”
The state spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on our public universities to give our children better opportunities and build a stronger economy.
In recognition of the potential for government corruption, our political system requires that elected officials and candidates for office disclose their donors and spending. We should similarly force university foundations to open their books to public scrutiny.
Haussamen runs NMPolitics.net, a news organization devoted to hard-hitting, fair exploration of politics and government that seeks to inform, engage and build community. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at /haussamen, or on twitter @haussamen.