Two Otero County residents have filed complaints with the state auditor and the state attorney general alleging that State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, along with his son, attorney Blair Dunn, and an Otero County commissioner, colluded for financial gain with public money and violated state law in connection with government contracts.
Siblings William and Susan Wheatley also filed a complaint with the New Mexico Disciplinary Board alleging misconduct by Blair Dunn.
Aubrey Dunn, Blair Dunn and Otero County Commissioner Ronny Rardin all deny any wrongdoing.
“I have done nothing illegal or unethical,” Rardin said Wednesday. “I’m not trying to hide anything.”
Blair Dunn called the complaint sour grapes from people whose preferred candidate, former State Land Commissioner Ray Powell, lost in the November general election.
“Nothing was done wrong,” said Blair Dunn, who plans to file his own suit against the Wheatleys by the end of the week. “If anything, it’s disgusting they are wasting the taxpayers’ money on this frivolous complaint.”
William Wheatley said he voted for Powell, but he said his complaint has nothing to do with the fact that his candidate lost in a race so close it triggered an automatic statewide recount. “This is not sour grapes,” said Wheatley, a retired federal employee who moved to Otero County from Chicago in 2010. “I believe there was a conflict of interest. This is about ethics.”
The complaint stems from two contracts, a short-term contract with the State Land Office benefiting Rardin and a proposed Otero County contract that would benefit Blair Dunn. It may also stem from bad blood between Otero County officials.
Rardin was one of five people who signed short-term professional services contracts Jan. 2 to serve on Aubrey Dunn’s transition team. Wheatley’s complaint says that on Jan. 8, Rardin, who has been a county commissioner 15 years, made a motion at a county meeting to replace county attorney Dan Bryant with Blair Dunn. The younger Dunn was already working as a contract attorney with the county. No one seconded Rardin’s motion, and it died.
Under the 90-day State Land Office contract, Rardin was to be paid $7,500 a month to audit all equipment and facilities around the state owned by the office. Wheatley said the contract was issued without a competitive bid, as required under the Governmental Conduct Act.
But contracts for employment that are valued at less than $50,000 do not need to go through a competitive bid process, State Land Office counsel Allison P. Hedgecock said.
Even if that’s true, William Wheatley said, appearance is everything. “At no time did Aubrey Dunn or Ronny Rardin make a full public disclosure of any real or potential conflicts of interest,” the Wheatley complaint says. “They made no effort to make full disclosure, a guiding principle for determining appropriate conduct. They apparently made no reasonable efforts to avoid undue influence and abuse of office.”
The three men accused of wrongdoing say there’s a lot more to the story.
While most of the winners in the November election had nearly two months to hire their teams before taking office, Aubrey Dunn wasn’t declared the official winner of the state land commissioner race until mid-December because of the recount. Dunn said he contracted with people he knew in order to put together a transition team until he could hire people permanently to fill top administrative positions.
The others hired on short-term contracts to serve on his transition team were Amy Munson, as projects consultant; Joseph R. Mraz, to manage the oil and gas division; former State Land Office employee Dennis Garcia, to advise on policy; and Laura Riley, to review and audit the commercial leasing program. Their contracts end March 31.
Aubrey Dunn said hiring people on 90-day contracts has saved the state $130,000 as opposed to hiring full-time employees with benefits. “I’m disappointed that someone would make these allegations when we’re trying to do what’s best for the state,” Aubrey Dunn said.
Blair Dunn said he has been working as a contact attorney with Otero County since 2012. He has handled public land and water issues for the county, which has been at the forefront of a movement seeking to transfer management of some federal lands to the state.
He also served on his father’s election campaign and helped with the transition. Blair Dunn sent an email to Aubrey Dunn on Dec. 30 with the recommended short-term contracts attached, including one for Rardin.
Rardin said his contract with the State Land Office had nothing to do with wanting to expand Blair Dunn’s contract with Otero County. Rardin said he has been trying to get rid of Otero County’s current attorney, Dan Bryant, for two years. “I don’t trust him,” Rardin said. “The other two commissioners don’t agree with me.”
Bad blood between Bryant and Rardin dates to 2013. Bryant represented Otero County Commissioner Susan Flores’ son, Philippe Flores, who was charged with drunken driving. Bryant was reprimanded but not fired by the Otero County Commission in February 2014 for representing a client against the county’s sheriff. At the time, Rardin told the Alamogordo Daily News, “I don’t think Dan did this intentionally. He made a terrible mistake. But it looks terrible and perception is a big issue.”
Bryant did not respond to a message left for comment.
Rardin, who attended high school in Alamogordo with Aubrey Dunn, ended his work with the State Land Office in February. “It was never was about the money,” he said. “It was about helping Aubrey off on the right foot.”
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.