ALBUQUEREQUE (KRQE) - The project was large, but the price tag was astronomical.
"Once I heard those numbers, I had to step back and say, ‘Are they for real?'" said Ryan Cangiolosi, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Susana Martinez.
New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela had a similar reaction, saying "billions of dollars … didn't seem to make sense to me."
Months later, both men's reactions were vindicated when the man behind the proposal was accused of serious financial misconduct.
The pitch was for an 1,800-bed hospital complex slated for west of Farmington that was to include a veterans medical facility, hospice center, nursing home, assisted-living center, substance-abuse center and psychological ward. Five medical clinics and a shopping mall were also part of the proposal.
The cost? An estimated $8.3 billion.
"It was such a massive undertaking, such a huge project," Cangiolosi said.
That's enough money to pay for Albuquerque's Metropolitan Courthouse 100 times, or to build Presbyterian's new Rio Rancho hospital 50 times over. Or, looking at it another way, it's 1 1/2 times New Mexico's annual state budget.
Farmington businessman Bobby Willis pitched the idea to Cangiolosi late last year by phone.
"He said we needed to get on board," Cangiolosi said. "It was going to create a lot of jobs, and if we didn't want to create jobs, he was going to take it to another state."
Barela said he heard about the idea when he met late last year with an Albuquerque doctor named Ronnie Garner, who was working with Willis.
"I have an open-door policy and I'll meet with just about anybody who requests a meeting, especially if it involves creating jobs here in New Mexico," Barela said.
However, both Barela and Cangiolosi became suspicious when Willis and Garner declined to provide specifics about the project like blueprints or a business plan.
"Their presentation to me lacked any kind of detail or focus," Barela said.
Said Cangiolosi, "He could not give us concrete plans, but wanted the governor to sign a letter of support so that he could go forward and get the bonds that he was trying to get."
Both men passed on the project. Garner later distributed a press release criticizing the governor's office for not supporting it.
Then Willis' name surfaced in connection with allegations of financial misconduct that could run into the millions. He is the co-owner of a Farmington company called New Mexico Title Escrow.
According to court documents, more than 200 of his escrow customers have been waiting months for their transactions to process with uncleared transactions totaling more than $20 million.
The New Mexico Financial Institutions Division investigation also found more than 60 checks from the customer escrow account that were not written to customers. One for more than $130,000 paid for an executive suite at the Denver Broncos stadium.
Phone calls to Bobby Willis' attorney were not returned.
Meanwhile, state officials are relieved they passed on Willis' hospital project.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said VA officials were not even contacted regarding the project.
Cangiolosi said Willis was evasive when asked about the VA's involvement.
"I asked him about the Veterans Administration, if they had their approval," Cangiolosi said. "And he did not answer that question. I said, ‘Well, good luck with your project Mr. Willis. We wish you the best of luck.'
"But this was not something I was going to take to the governor."
A temporary restraining order is in place to keep Willis and his business partners from doing any business at the escrow company.
In the meantime, Garner, who pitched the hospital project to Barela, insisted the project was the real deal.
He told KRQE News 13 he is trying to move forward with developing his part of the plan, which is to build a series of medical clinics across the state.
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