Governor again pushes controversial third-grade reading reform measure

Gov. Susana Martinez  New Mexican file photo

Gov. Susana Martinez will be in the spotlight Thursday as she and fellow Republican governors meet in Las Vegas, Nev., to pick a leader of their political organization.

If Martinez is elected as chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, her profile will grow, and so too will questions about the federal criminal investigation of her top political adviser, Jay McCleskey.

The Republican Governors Association, based in Washington, D.C., will announce which GOP governor will chair the organization for the next year. The group raised $144 million in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, to help support its mission of electing Republicans to gubernatorial offices across the nation. Koch Industries gave $5.2 million, making it the association’s largest contributor.

Jon Thompson, spokesman for the group, did not respond to questions about whether the investigation of McCleskey would have any bearing on Martinez’s chances of being elected chairwoman. She now is vice chairwoman of the group.

The Wynn Las Vegas & Encore Resort will host the conference where the outgoing chairman, Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, will hand over power to one of his Republican colleagues. Fox News host Bret Baier will moderate a discussion Wednesday called “2016 and the Role of Republican Governors.” Martinez and her colleagues from Arizona, Florida, Maryland and South Carolina will be on the panel.

Public records and association agendas show that Martinez’s chief of staff, Keith Gardner, and others in her administration have attended out-of-state policy conferences of the Republican Governors Association. The conferences mix public officials and lobbyists for companies that pay the association thousands annually for access to officials such as Gardner.

The Republican Governors Association is not alone in connecting governors across the nation to campaign donors. Martinez’s predecessor as governor of New Mexico, Democrat Bill Richardson, chaired the Democratic Governors Association in 2005 and 2006.

The Republican Governors Association also has paid McCleskey as a consultant. Last year, he assisted in elections in Arizona and Nevada. The association also funded an advertising campaign in Arizona that helped Republican Doug Ducey win the governor’s seat there. The firm where McCleskey’s wife, Nicole, is a partner, Public Opinion Strategies, meanwhile, received payments directly from Ducey’s campaign during that race.

The Republican Governors Association also has paid Public Opinion Strategies for polling over the years.

Campaign finance reports show the association contributed $4,464.50 to Susana PAC — a political committee controlled by McCleskey.

The FBI has been inquiring about payments from Susana PAC, which supports pro-Martinez candidates in the state, to firms in which McCleskey has a financial interest. The FBI also has inquired about payments from the governor’s 2010 inaugural committee to McCleskey’s firms.

The scope of the federal investigation of McCleskey is unclear. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico have declined to confirm or deny whether an investigation is ongoing. In contrast, Martinez last week confirmed it, saying she was confident McCleskey had done nothing wrong.

Chris Sanchez, Martinez’s spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment on the investigation or Martinez’s potential leadership of the group.

Justin Horwath can be reached at 986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.