(This article was originally published on July 21, 2014)
Something strange is going on in Santa Fe’s upscale Guadalupe District. It is an area known for unique shops and distinctive restaurants, and just off a side street, there is a parking lot frequented by dozens of mysterious strangers.
They park there, nonchalantly stroll towards a cinder block wall and then discretely disappear.
All day long, cars are abandoned as drivers vanish over the wall. Later, returning from some unknown mission, they hop the wall, slip back in their cars and vanish.
These curious wall jumpers are not on some secret mission, they are just restaurant employees going to work at the Cowgirl BBQ. And when they park in the lot, they are in violation of state policy and regulation.
The parking lot is now at the heart of a state government scandal arranged by Larry Campos, the head of the New Mexico Workforce Connection office in Santa Fe. Campos improperly allowed a private business free use of government property.
When asked if an employee can give a private benefit that nobody else in the public gets, Campos replied “Oh that’s not true. That’s not true. I don’t have the authority to do that.”
Parking is limited in the historic Santa Fe area along Guadalupe Street. And while the parking lot is just across the street, it’s strictly off limits.
“Those parking lots are for our state business and state customers only,” Workforce Solutions Cabinet Secretary, Celina Bussey said.
To keep drivers out, the lot is enforced with sternly worded signs and a security guard patrolling the area. However, the security guard said only Cowgirl restaurant employees are allowed to park in the area.
KRQE News 13 documented more than two dozen employees parking in the lot.
It’s a secret deal allowing Cowgirl employee’s free, unlimited, exclusive use of state property. Some restaurant employees use Cowgirl stickers on the dash as identification. Other employees are provided forged state parking permits from the security guard, so that their cars are left alone.
Everyone else risks getting towed.
“State employees really do not have any authority to pick and choose which private contractors may use public facilities,” New Mexico General Services Department Cabinet Secretary Ed Burckle said. “That would be outside their authority.”
“We’ve asked all of our staff to understand that under no circumstances is it appropriate for those type of parking arrangements to be made,” Bussey said.
Campos admits it was a bad decision.
“Maybe in this case it was bad judgment…maybe I stepped on the wrong … did the wrong thing. I admit it,” Campos said.
“Parking lots as well as buildings are for state purposes only, and any prior decisions that have been made to do anything contrary to that need to be corrected because they are not in accordance with our policy,” Bussey said.
So, what is in it for Campos?
A confidential source told KRQE News 13 the high ranking state employee bragged about free and discounted food.
Cowgirl restaurant owner Nick Ballas told KRQE News 13 the restaurant does not provide any incentive or compensation to Campos in exchange for the free employee parking. He said Cowgirl does routinely provide discounts to everyone in the area, but says that is just being neighborly.
Workforce Solutions said it would issue official parking permits only to employees and customers. The forged placards would also be null and void.
“The direction will be to communicate with the owner of that restaurant that regardless of any prior decisions or directives that they’ve been given their employees or customers have access to the parking lot, that for normal business hours and for the purposes of state business, that is the only access the parking lot will be afforded,” Bussey said.
Although Secretary Bussey said the improper parking arrangement would be halted immediately, it wasn’t. As of last Friday, state officials put up new signs limiting parking to official business only. However, Cowgirl employees continued to park in the lot.