NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – It is a half-million-dollar scheme arranged by high-ranking public officials. “In my opinion, there’s a lot of people to blame,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair, State Senator George Muñoz.

Duke City Gladiators field
Duke City Gladiators indoor football field at the Rio Rancho Events Center. | KRQE File

The focus of our investigation is on the Duke City Gladiators, an indoor football team based in Rio Rancho. Indoor football is a vastly different game from the NFL. For example, indoor football teams compete in arenas on playing fields that look more like hockey rinks. To understand the issues, you need to look closely at the Gladiators. Not the players, but the field. There’s something amiss.

This is not a sports story. It’s a tale of deception and misuse of tax dollars. It began last year. The Gladiators play at the Events Center in Rio Rancho after moving from Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque. Team owner Gina Thomas decided Rio Rancho’s football field just wouldn’t do. She wanted her team to play on a glitzy new gridiron.

Regulation size indoor football fields cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so Thomas lobbied public officials for help. State lawmakers answered the call. The Gladiators opened their 2022 season with a brand new artificial turf playing field, courtesy of New Mexico taxpayers. Before the Duke City Gladiators battled the Arizona Rattlers on April 2, 2022, spectators were told, “Welcome to the Rio Rancho Events Center and the brand new ‘One Albuquerque’ field.”

The Duke City Gladiators is a private enterprise. In New Mexico, the use of public money to aid a private business is strictly prohibited. “So now we’ve taken public money and bought a field for a private company which clearly violates statute. It’s a big problem,” State Senator George Muñoz said.

How did they pull it off?

The first hint of something underhanded surfaced last year when the City of Albuquerque submitted a Capital Outlay request to the State Legislature for a mystery project. Albuquerque requested $185,000 from lawmakers to purchase artificial turf playing fields for recreational facilities within “parks, swimming pools, tennis courts, sports fields, …bikeways, Bosque lands, and trails that will benefit Council Districts in Albuquerque in Bernalillo County.”

State Representatives Antonio “Moe” Maestas, Dayan Hochman-Vigil, and Kelly Fajardo responded to the request with a $160,000 Capital Outlay appropriation for the City of Albuquerque’s project.

KRQE News 13’s investigation finds that seemingly routine appropriation was a deception. Instead of using public money to buy artificial turf for recreational facilities in Albuquerque, the funds were diverted to buy the Gladiators a football field in Rio Rancho.

Armed with the legislative appropriation and an additional $77,000 in city funds, Albuquerque’s Parks Department plopped down $239,622 in taxpayer money and bought the Gladiators in Rio Rancho a custom-made, state-of-the-art playing field. “It’s a good benefit to support the Gladiator program, which benefits families and children in the entire metro area,” Albuquerque Parks Director Dave Simon said.

Gladiator ‘Super Fan’ Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller was there for the rollout. “Oh man, it’s so good to see (the new playing field), I tell you. The Gladiators got it for as long as they want it every year,” Mayor Keller announced at the Gladiator’s game in April.

Before public money can be paid out, legislative appropriations are reviewed for compliance with state law by New Mexico’s Department of Finance and Administration (DFA). “It’s important to ensure that public money is being safeguarded,” said DFA Cabinet Secretary Debbie Romero.

As part of the verification process, the New Mexico Board of Finance required Albuquerque officials to provide a detailed description of how the Capital Outlay Appropriation funds would be spent. However, in response, Albuquerque Parks Deputy Director David Flores dodged the question. Rather than describing Albuquerque’s mystery project, Flores provided a description of artificial turf. Flores wrote, “Artificial turf is an environmentally sustainable surface that is also versatile and can be used extensively in park applications.”

DFA Cabinet Secretary Romero says Albuquerque’s explanation of the project was incomplete. “There was definitely a need for more information,” Secretary Romero says. “We cannot allow (Albuquerque) to use money for something that’s not actually identified in the appropriation language.”

Because Albuquerque officials had already bought the artificial turf field using city funds, they submitted an invoice to the Department of Finance for reimbursement. The reimbursement request was denied.

DFA lawyers determined Albuquerque’s expenditure of the legislative funds would violate state law. The city was authorized to buy turf for public use in public spaces, not for the benefit of a private for-profit company. Secondly, the field should have been installed in Albuquerque, as specified in the appropriation, not Rio Rancho. Thirdly, DFA concluded the private use (Gladiators) of public property (Gladiator’s field) without compensation would be a violation of the “Anti-Donation Clause” of the State Constitution.

Appropriation co-sponsor State Rep. Hochman-Vigil says she was lobbied for the funding by Gladiator team owner Gina Thomas. Hochman-Vigil does acknowledge that the language used in the appropriation may have been a little “sloppy”; however, she does not believe the appropriation was improper. Rep. Hochman-Vigil says she’s “learned a lesson.”

Capital Outlay co-sponsor State Rep. Kelly Fajardo chipped in $100,000 to the project. She could not explain how her name was on the Gladiator field appropriation. The Valencia County legislator said she usually does not sponsor projects outside her district.

Albuquerque State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas said he could not recall who lobbied him for the appropriation. He said he was aware that the Capital Outlay funds would be used to buy a playing field for the Gladiators. “The turf is specifically made for a Gladiators game, but theoretically, anybody could utilize it if they rent the arena,” Maestas said.

Even though documents show someone with the City of Albuquerque petitioned state lawmakers for the Gladiator field funding, no one at City Hall seems to know who made the request or wrote the deceptive project description. “I had no knowledge of the request of the appropriation,” Albuquerque Parks Director Dave Simon said.

Then, buried on page 138 in a routine 2022 legislative spending bill is $325,000 for “improvements to an indoor arena in Albuquerque.” However, the City of Albuquerque doesn’t own an indoor arena. Someone at Albuquerque’s Parks Department requested the money for another mystery project. Parks Director Dave Simon denied requesting the funding and says he does not know how the money will be spent. “I think we will wait to see if the city is going to get access to that money, and then we will try to determine as best we can what that intent would be,” Simon said. When reminded that Albuquerque doesn’t own an indoor arena, Simon responded, “So what.”

Legislative sponsors say they were told the $325,000 is for an arena ‘Jumbotron’ and ribbon scoreboard for the Gladiators. “The ‘Jumbotron isn’t just for the Gladiators, its for the arena,” appropriation co-sponsor State Rep. Antonio “Moe,” Maestas says. “It’s in the interests of the Gladiators to play in a really nice arena,” Maestas said.

The appropriation language in the funding bill makes no mention of scoreboards or ‘Jumbotrons.’ When asked by the Board of Finance to provide a detailed description of the project, City Parks Deputy Director David Flores changed the $325,000 legislative appropriation from improvements to an indoor arena in Albuquerque to the design of a new indoor arena in Albuquerque.

“I think there’s a disconnect between what they intend to use the money for and what the appropriation language includes,” DFA Cabinet Secretary Debbie Romero said. The legality of the $325,000 appropriation is under review.

Why would public officials improperly commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit a private business? We don’t know.

Following the 2021 legislative session and approval of the $160,000 Capital Outlay appropriation, team owner Gina Thomas made $1500 in campaign contributions to Mayor Tim Keller’s re-election bid. Thomas also donated $1700 to State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas. Following the 2022 $325,000 legislative appropriation, the Duke City Gladiators donated another $2500 to State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas’ for his re-election.

Documents below show campaign contributions.

“I’m sure everyone’s grateful when you do a bill. A lot of times, you get contributions when you vote against a bill. … I accept campaign contributions from most everybody,” Rep. Maestas says. He admits, “It doesn’t look good at all.” Earlier this month, Maestas was appointed to fill a vacancy in the State Senate.

State Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, Kelly Fajardo, Dayan Hochman-Vigil, Joshua Hernandez, and Senator Craig Brandt were responsible for funding $485,000 in Capital Outlay appropriations to benefit the Gladiators. Team owner Gina Thomas did not respond to questions.

In the statement to KRQE News 13, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Attorney General’s office said, “It is a violation for any county, city, or school district to make any donation in aid of any person, association, or private corporation, and we will contact the appropriate regulatory agency to ensure compliance.” A formal complaint has been filed with New Mexico’s Ethics Commission.

“We are elected to watch your money and make sure it’s spent correctly and … and it didn’t happen here,” Senate Finance Chair George Muñoz said.