ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It was a behind-the-scenes deal that Senate Finance Committee Chair Senator George Munoz describes as, “absolutely wrong.” Albuquerque City Councilor Brook Bassan says, “There’s nothing by the book about this.” And Albuquerque City Councilor Louie Sanchez calls it “unbelievably disgusting.” The bottom line is this: It was a hush-hush scheme orchestrated by Albuquerque officials involving almost a quarter of a million dollars. Instead of using public money for the benefit of its citizens, City Hall doled out tax dollars to benefit a private business.

How did they pull it off? Two things. Deception and dishonesty.

Gladiators Field at Rio Rancho Events Center | KRQE File
(Gladiators Field at Rio Rancho Events Center | KRQE File)

Exhibit ‘A’ for this scheme is a $236,622, custom-made, regulation size, indoor football sports field. It’s an artificial turf playing surface designed exclusively for the Duke City Gladiators, a Rio Rancho-based, privately owned indoor football team.

The football field was bought by Albuquerque’s Parks and Recreation Department. However, nobody in the department seems to know just who authorized the purchase. “I had no knowledge of the request of the appropriation,” ABQ Parks and Recreation Director Dave Simon told KRQE News 13 last year.

So if the Parks Department didn’t authorize the purchase then who did?  There is a clue buried in a January 26, 2022 email from an Albuquerque Fiscal Manager handling payment arrangements for the Gladiator’s field. She wrote, “… we are trying to get this going since it is a mayoral request.”

(Mayor Tim Keller | Courtesy Jason Collin Photography)

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has been a high-profile Gladiators’ Superfan and is a frequent guest at halftime festivities where he touts the team’s success. He’s even been known to suit up in Gladiator gear and toss the pigskin. Despite his enthusiasm for the team, Mayor Keller denies involvement in the turf purchase.

The first indication of something underhanded was in late 2020 when Albuquerque officials filed a request to the State Legislature for a Capital Outlay appropriation to buy “equipment for park and recreation facilities in Albuquerque.” This request however was a deception. Documents show the city never intended to use state funds for Albuquerque parks but rather to buy the Gladiators a playing field.

(Click the image to see the 2021 Capital Outlay Appropriation Document.)

During the 2021 legislative session, state lawmakers voted to fund Albuquerque’s project. This too was a deception. Even though legislators earmarked $160,000 specifically for “playing fields at recreational facilities in Albuquerque”, bill sponsors admit they knew the $160,000 would be used to buy the Gladiators a gridiron in Rio Rancho. Last year, State Senator ‘Moe’ Maestas, one of the appropriation sponsors, told KRQE News 13 his understanding was that Albuquerque’s turf field would be for the Duke City Gladiators.

At the 2022 legislature, state lawmakers appropriated $325,000 in Capital Outlay money to Albuquerque for “improvements to an indoor arena.” This legislative grant was yet another deception. You see, Albuquerque doesn’t own an indoor arena. Bill sponsors say they were lobbied by Gladiators’ owner Gina Prieskorn-Thomas for the funding.

Following the two legislative appropriations, Prieskorn-Thomas and the Gladiators made $4,200 in campaign contributions to bill sponsor ‘Moe’ Maestas and $1,250 in campaign contributions to Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.

Because the legislative Capital Outlay appropriations raised red flags, New Mexico’s Department of Finance and Administration ruled public money could not be used to benefit a private business and pulled the plug on the legislative funding. DFA informed Albuquerque officials, “The proposed expenditure to purchase artificial turf violates appropriation law.”

“None of it is by the book,” Senate Finance Committee Chair State Senator George Munoz says. “If the legislators knew (the appropriation was for the Gladiators) they misappropriated money. … There are no consequences for a legislator (who misappropriates money) unless the Ethics Commission deems that they want to take up the subject,” Senator Munoz says.

In early 2022 Albuquerque’s Parks and Recreation Department contracted with a firm to design and build the Gladiators an arena size artificial turf sports field. The $236,000 project included $7,900 for One Albuquerque logos, $3,600 for end zone lettering, and $4,500 for football lines. City emails obtained by KRQE News 13 show the order was rushed because the Gladiators wanted their new field in time for the home opener. The sports field was installed at the Rio Rancho Events Center in April last year. The Gladiators have been using Albuquerque’s gridiron rent-free.

Following an investigation of the turf transactions, Albuquerque’s Inspector General concluded, there was “sufficient evidence that the use of City of Albuquerque taxpayer dollars to pay for artificial turf installed in a facility located in another municipality for the benefit of a privately-owned entity was a misuse of City funds.”

Albuquerque’s Inspector General added, “The conveyance of the indoor turf for the Duke City Gladiators installed at the Rio Rancho Events Center appears to amount to a donation/gift as there is no evidence of consideration on the part of the Gladiators or the Rio Rancho Events Center to the city.”

Albuquerque City Councilor Louie Sanchez has called for an Attorney General’s investigation. “It was not an appropriate expenditure. This was specifically set up to be a gift to the Gladiators in a whole different city,” Councilor Sanchez said. “They deceived the City Council. They deceived the citizens of Albuquerque. And they also deceived the legislators that are involved in this.”

Gladiator team owner Gina Prieskorn-Thomas did not respond to questions about the turf. A spokesperson for Tim Keller said the Mayor is “not interested” in doing an interview on this subject.

“It bothers me to find out that we purchased something that was never really discussed or approved and communicated between the administration and the council. It puts insult to injury to know that it’s in another city,” says Albuquerque City Councilor Brook Bassan who chairs the Council’s Budget Committee.

“The legislative branch is in charge of coming up with the budget and approving it. So if things are going to get purchased behind our back for luxurious reasons, the very least, I think that they should be transparent and own that decision,” Councilor Bassan says.

An investigation into Albuquerque’s football turf purchase is underway at the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.

Senate Finance Chair, State Senator George Munoz has some advice for Albuquerque’s City Hall, “Clean up your act.”

“The point is we owe our citizens better. We owe our citizens transparency and honesty. That’s the point,” City Councilor Louie Sanchez says.