Avoiding scandal takes follow-through

By Ned Cantwell: State columnist

For the most part, I get it.

Juicy scandal rocks New Mexico. Wannabe mob guys playing Monopoly with treasury office tax money. Forget the dimly lit back room of a New Jersey tavern. This drama takes place in the Land of Enchantment where, prosecutors say, if you wanted to do business with former state treasurer Robert Vigil, it helped to have a suitcase of kickback cash.
Vigil is on trial for racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering and extortion. He quit the job before the Legislature threw him out, but maintains his innocence.
So, I get it. Most of it.

Shadowy guys having secret meetings in, somewhat appropriately, public bathrooms.

Envelopes with thick wads of cash being exchanged.

Not so subtle warnings to staff members reluctant to toe the line. One witness, Treasurer’s Office Investment Officer Mark Canavan, testified Vigil reminded him he owed his job to Vigil and “Don’t screw with people who have been good to you.”

The Sopranos packed up and headed west, I get all that. Here’s what I don’t get. People in the know caught the whiff coming from the Treasurer’s Office as early as six years ago and didn’t follow up.
What I don’t get is the letter. According to her testimony, when Jan Goodwin was head of the State Board of Finance in 2000, she had reason to question the activities of former Treasurer’s Office Investment Adviser Kent Nelson. This eventually led to drafting a letter to Attorney General Patricia Madrid suggesting she investigate. Goodwin, now secretary of Taxation and Revenue, testified she thought the letter was sent. Madrid’s office said it never got such a letter.

So, I can understand the concept of greedy people on the take. What I can’t understand is how such an important letter fell through the cracks.
“Say, I was just thinking we sent that letter to the AG a couple months ago suggesting there may be some suspicious stuff going on in the Treasurer’s Office. We ever hear back on that?”

“Dadgummit, you know I think that was the day we ran out of postage. I don’t know if that letter ever got sent.”
“Oh, well.”

This Kent Nelson fellow, who has pleaded guilty to giving kickbacks, was apparently so grossly incompetent that his hanging around the investment crowd made as much sense as Anna Nicole Smith having tea with the Daughters of the American Revolution. What Anna lacks in class, Kent lacks in moxy.

A routine application he prepared for the state was so inept, testified the scandal’s bagman, it looked like something a high school kid might write. They had to give him a legitimate application from another broker so he could figure out how to fill one out.

No surprise, then, that it was not just Jan Goodwin who figured out Kent Nelson was suspicious. Michael Hegeman, an investigator with a national securities industry self-regulatory board, wrote Vigil in January 2003 to alert him something was fishy with Nelson.
Vigil did not respond to Hegeman’s letter so the securities investigator let it drop.

Let it drop seems to be the theme song that serenaded us right into one of the most embarrassing episodes of New Mexico history. If only someone would have followed up, perhaps we could have avoided this mess.

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