Federal probe targets governor’s top adviser McCleskey

Jay McCleskey via www.mccleskeymedia.com/about/

For the past several months, the FBI has been interviewing some state Republicans about Gov. Susana Martinez’s fundraising activities going back to her first run for governor.

One prominent New Mexico Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed being interviewed in recent months by federal agents about funds from Martinez’s campaign, as well as money from her 2011 inauguration committee, going to the governor’s political consultant, Jay McCleskey.

This person also said agents asked questions about different “fundraising vehicles,” such as political action committees, used by Martinez’s political wing, though it was unclear what potential violations federal agents are investigating.

The individual, one of several who have been questioned, asked not to be named for fear of hurting the investigation.

The probe could have far-reaching repercussions, as Martinez is expected to be announced as the chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association later this month.

McCleskey didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday evening.

A spokesman for Martinez and other officials in her administration also did not return phone messages or emails seeking comment.

Frank Fisher, a spokesman at the FBI’s Albuquerque office, said Friday, “We can neither confirm nor deny an investigation.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office similarly said in an email that the office “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation into the matter about which you inquire.”

McCleskey has been Martinez’s political consultant since she launched her first gubernatorial campaign in 2009, guiding her to decisive victories, first in the 2010 Republican primary, then the 2010 and 2014 general elections. The year before Martinez’s election, he managed Richard Berry’s successful race for mayor of Albuquerque. Berry became the first GOP mayor in 20 years in the state’s largest city.

After Martinez took office, McCleskey started his own firm, McCleskey Media Strategies.

He is one of the best-paid political consultants the state has ever known. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, filed last month, Martinez’s political action committee paid McCleskey $128,512 between April and October, an average of $21,418 a month. During that period, Susana PAC paid $20,000 to the polling company Public Opinion Strategies, in which McCleskey’s wife, Nicole McCleskey, is a partner.

McCleskey’s company also was paid more than $32,000 for that six-month period — $5,333 a month — by Advance New Mexico Now, another PAC, which raises money for GOP legislative and statewide candidates.

McCleskey’s clients have included top Republicans across the state, including Dianna Duran, who last month resigned as secretary of state after pleading guilty to six counts that involved embezzling campaign donations by transferring funds to her personal bank account while making cash withdrawals at casinos.

Duran’s campaign paid McCleskey Media Strategies and the consulting firm where he worked prior to 2010, Lincoln Strategy Group, a total of $365,530 during the 2010 and 2014 election cycles, making him the largest recipient of her campaign cash.

He also was paid by the Republican Governors Association as a consultant for gubernatorial races in Arizona and Nevada. McCleskey received tens of thousands of dollars from the association in 2014. Public Opinion Strategies received at least $63,000 for polling and focus groups that year, according to tax filings.

FBI agents had been asking questions about a lease extension issued by Martinez’s administration to The Downs Racetrack & Casino in Albuquerque since at least early 2013, though it’s unclear whether that inquiry is related to the present one.

That was when a federal grand jury indicted Jamie Estrada, Martinez’s former campaign manager, for unlawfully intercepting emails sent to her campaign accounts. But before he pleaded guilty, Estrada mounted a defense that asserted that the emails’ contents — which include examples of McCleskey’s involvement in state business — showed “potentially corrupt conduct.” Estrada filed a request for “all documents regarding possible illegal or improper conduct” by McCleskey and others.

“Martinez and her associates have a political motive to testify falsely in the hopes of convicting Estrada to deflect attention from their own conduct regarding the racino and the criminal investigations into that conduct,” argued Estrada’s lawyers, “and because the FBI and the United States Attorney, the very same agencies that are prosecuting Estrada, also control the racino investigation, Martinez and her allies have a motive to testify falsely to curry favor with those agencies with the goal of avoiding a poor outcome in the racino investigation.”

Federal prosecutors fought Estrada’s discovery efforts, and he pleaded guilty. But the prosecutors, in fighting discovery, declined to specifically deny that there was an investigation into the racino contract. Estrada recently was released from federal prison after serving time for his convictions.

Through attorneys, Andrea Goff, a former fundraiser for Martinez, and Anissa Ford, a former campaign staffer for Martinez, said at the time of the Estrada case that FBI agents had interviewed them about the racino lease. They said they weren’t targets for the investigation.

In March 2012, McCleskey sent a text message to Andrea Goff, who had raised money for Susana PAC and served as the executive director of her 2010 inauguration committee, requesting that they run donations made by William Windham, one of the three owners of The Downs, through another political committee because the competing bidder for the lease protested The Downs’ winning it. The National Journal, a Washington, D.C.-based magazine, initially reported the text message.

“We should run [W]indham’s through a different PAC,” McCleskey wrote to Goff, adding, “the lease is under protest, so we shouldn’t hit it.”

Though McCleskey’s political skills are lauded by Republicans — and even grudgingly admired by some Democrats — he has made enemies within his own party who have decried his “slash-and-burn” tactics and his willingness to attack fellow Republicans in primary fights.

In the 2012 primary, McCleskey himself became an issue in a state Senate race in northwestern New Mexico. This was after McCleskey sent out mailers blasting rancher Pat Woods, who was running against a candidate Martinez preferred for the vacant seat. Woods fought back with his own mailer featuring a photo of McCleskey, whom he called a “slick Albuquerque political consultant” being paid for “mudslinging and negative attacks.”

The attacks often worked. The front page of his consulting firm quotes Martinez as saying, “I could not have won without Jay being my political consultant.”

Justin Horwath can be reached 986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com. Steve Terrell can be reached at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com.