UNMF Comes Clean on Branch Field Deal

By Daniel Libit

Facing mounting media scrutiny — and an adverse public records lawsuit ruling — The University of New Mexico Foundation acknowledged today that it quietly amended a gift agreement last year with university booster Margaret Branch, which cut the price of her naming-rights deal for the Lobo football field by almost half.

The Albuquerque Journal, which was first to report the news, said that it had made multiple requests for the Branch Field payment information over the last two years. But the disclosures came just weeks after NMFishbowl.com made an Inspection of Public Records Act request for these materials on September 12.

The revelation once again raises questions about the integrity of naming-rights agreements that are handled by the UNM Foundation, which is already under investigation by the New Mexico Attorney General over an un-related 2014 Lobo booster trip to Scotland.

In 2012, Branch signed a seven-year, $1.5 million naming-rights agreement with the Foundation in exchange for having the football field at University Stadium (now Dreamstyle Stadium) christened, “Branch Field.”

According to the original proposal, Branch and her husband Turner’s eponymous law firm would pay the UNM Foundation seven annual payments of $214,285. As of last June, however, the Branch Law Firm had only made good on $430,045 of its commitment, less than half of what should have paid up to that point. Turner Branch died in 2016.

Last March, Margaret Branch sent a letter to then-Athletic Director Paul Krebs, seeing whether he would be interested in leasing her private jet (for $3,000/hour), presumably for athletics department business. In a postscript to the letter, Branch wrote, “I am meeting with the estate attorneys and should be able to get you a payment very soon on our pledge.” (NMFishbowl.com obtained a copy of that letter through a previous IPRA request.)

It’s not certain how Krebs replied, but in an email sent to his assistant, Rita Chavez, Krebs instructed her to draft a response.

“Thank her for reaching out to me re the plane,” Krebs wrote. “Appreciate her letting us know of the availability. Great way to travel and we will keep this in mind for the future.”

Two months later, however, Margaret Branch sent a confidential letter to UNM Foundation President Henry Nemcik, explaining that any more funds allocated for the naming-rights agreement were now indefinitely tied up in her husband’s probate. She offered, instead, to give UNM $100,000 annually over the next three years. (Nemcik announced his retirement from the Foundation earlier this month.)

On June 22, 2017, UNM Interim President Chaouki Abdallah signed an amended gift agreement with Branch, in which it was agreed that she would pay $400,000 to continue the naming-rights agreement through the end of this year. That means, in the end, Branch will pay $830,045 instead of the $1.5 million that had originally been pledged.

In a joint statement released along with copies of the agreements and Branch’s past check payments, the Foundation cited “undue and inaccurate publicity” surrounding its “donor confidentiality” efforts, as what prompted the disclosure of this information now. Rumors and insinuations of tardy payments have swirled over the last two years. In June, former WisePies owner Steve Chavez alluded to Margaret Branch when he called on other UNM naming-rights sponsors to provide details of their arrangements.

In May, state District Judge Nancy Franchini ruled in favor of this reporter’s public records suit against the Foundation, declaring that the non-profit should be subject to state disclosure laws. UNMF has since appealed that ruling. In providing the Branch documents to NMFishbowl.com, the Foundation sent an accompanying letter insisting that it was only doing so voluntarily, and was not legally obligated to.