Eddie Nuñez’s Lobo Land Grab

By Daniel Libit / photos by Steven St. John

Like many up-and-coming strivers in his line of work, University of New Mexico Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez has cultivated the reputation of a man who gets pricey things done.

In his previous job as Louisiana State University’s deputy director of athletics, Nuñez was credited with overseeing $400 million in athletic facility renovations and construction projects — a datapoint prominently displayed on his online bio.

But, of course, that’s LSU: where athletics money grows on the cypress trees of Baton Rouge. The situation is significantly different in the Land of Enchantment.

So, considering the rock-bottom fiscal standing of Lobo sports—featuring the summertime slashing of four athletic programs after the shocking disclosure of an athletic department deficit that had reached a stratospheric $7.5 million—the shadowy real-estate scheme that Eddie Nuñez is currently speed-rushing through UNM’s South Campus might be the most impressive of his career.  It’s certainly the least financially justifiable.

At the exact moment that UNM Athletics is hemorrhaging bucket after bucket of red ink—and with no end in sight, as football and men’s basketball crowds continue to plummet—Nuñez is planning a seven-figure move that will give him and his staff cleaner carpets, more leg room and vastly bigger windows. Although, he insists that’s not what this is about.

“The contemplated move of the Athletics administrative offices has been part of a larger effort to improve efficiency by consolidating our department and nothing to do with moving to a ‘nicer’ building,” Nuñez told NMFishbowl.com.

Nuñez covets the space in UNM’s Student Support and Services Center that is currently occupied by the Albuquerque Institute of Mathematics and Science (AIMS) — the nationally renowned, UNM-affiliated charter high school — and wants to move the entire Athletic Administration from its dingy and drab accommodations in the 1960’s-era Colleen J. Maloof Building to the more modern and roomy corridors of 1155 University Blvd.

At present, the athletics compliance and academic advisement staff inhabit a second-floor wing in 1155 University Blvd., just across the hall from where AIMS maintains some of its classrooms. In justifying the urgency to co-locate his department, Nuñez and his backers have claimed that the proximity of AIMS’s high school students to UNM’s college athletes is implicating NCAA violations — even though records obtained by NMFishbowl.com suggest the athletic department knows otherwise.

With all the ongoing wrangling over who goes where, it has sometimes been difficult to figure out who in this drama are the children. According to multiple sources, Nuñez has raised complaints about AIMS students purchasing snacks from a vending machine that is also regularly patronized by athletic administrative staffers — a claim Nuñez vehemently denies.

By all accounts, the land grab at 1155 University Blvd. represents the first time in decades that the athletic department’s physical relocation has been contemplated, let alone acted on, and it is being rushed to completion without anything resembling a comprehensive plan in place.

In lieu of that, UNM’s athletic director and a few key supporters are playing the most expensive and convoluted game of Mouse Trap.  The migration of Nuñez’s staff will topple a row of dominoes rippling through three entities—UNM Athletics, UNM Hospital and AIMS—triggering millions of dollars of moving and remodeling expense, and immediately costing the university $1.5 million in lost rent revenue.

UNM Athletics — or, rather, main campus, which has quietly taken on significant amounts of the Lobo sports’ administrative overhead and debt service — is spending money it does not have for something it does not need in its current cash-starved crunch.

To accommodate Nuñez’s wish, UNM will then take out a $1.5 million loan to move AIMS into an office currently occupied by scores of UNM Hospital staffers, thus changing the character of payments made by AIMS from rent income to debt service on UNM’s loan.  The final big piece is UNM incurring even more expense to find a new home for the displaced hospital staffers. And then there’s the cost of athletics setting up shop at 1155 University Blvd., plus the sum of unanticipated — and yet inevitable — project overruns.

The entire scheme is so poorly conceived that several current regents have publicly indicated that they would vote against it, one having said so explicitly.  But, alas, there is no vote: the process has been pushed through administrative back-channels that avoided standard input and oversight.

Fundamentally, the plan ignores perhaps the most valuable piece of outside consulting advice UNM paid former Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden $53,000 to receive: make money before you spend.  In a July 6 email to Nuñez and UNM President Garnett Stokes—which NMFishbowl.com obtained through an Inspection of Public Records request— Alden wrote the following:

“It’s important that (UNM’s athletic) plan address revenues first.  How are we going to generate monies for the program?  The most important piece in budgeting is to determine reasonable revenues BEFORE you determine how you’re going to spend it.  UNM has done the opposite and that’s why UNM is where UNM is today.”

Not only does the move not generate any fresh revenue, it will quite likely end up costing UNM millions (plural). This says nothing about the diversion of attentional resources, especially from UNM’s Real Estate Department, which has been made to run around like decollated poultry trying to put this Rube Goldberg scheme in place.

At a Board of Regents meeting two months ago, UNM Real Estate Director Tom Neale was being highly diplomatic when he called it a “torturous process.”

If all that isn’t enough, the quintessentially UNM manner in which this torturous process has transpired — that septic brew of interloping regents, financial sleight-of-hand, spuriousness and secrecy — is yet another reminder that despite the weighty lessons of the recent past, old habits die hard.

One of those abiding habits is to layer one outstanding debt obligation on top of another, thereby building up the sedimentary rock of financial hardship that the university can never escape.

In time, Nuñez’s resumé may boast of this cunning annexation. But, for now, the key to the deal is that none of the aforementioned costs or revenue losses will be reflected on the athletic department’s balance sheet. And this is most essential, given that athletics is supposed to be under a “deficit-reduction” program, mandated by its accrediting agency and the state’s Higher Education Department, which requires it to pay back to UNM’s main campus $4.7 million in revolving debt.

However, just like the $1.8 million yearly debt service payments for The Pit renovation, which were transferred to main campus’s books last year, the machinations of 1155 University Blvd. beg the question of how serious the university really is about holding Athletics accountable. Invariably, it seems, there’s always someone in authority willing to give this bad dog more leash.

In this case, Nuñez’s relocation wishes have been prodded along by two pom-pom-waving regents, Board President Rob Doughty and Vice President Marron Lee, whose functional diarchy will expire just as soon as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s five new Board appointees take their seats.

With that in mind, over the last few months, a mad scramble has taken place to put into irreversible motion a plan that will turn the rare example of a South Campus revenue-generator into yet another victim of the “Everyone’s a Lobo” credo. If it hasn’t already, the die may be cast Tuesday, when the full Board of Regents hold their next monthly meeting.

***

AIMS at UNM
The UNM Student Support and Services Center at 1155 University Blvd.

This story, in many ways, serves as just the latest chapter in a saga that began over a decade ago when, in a fit of pre-recession zeal, UNM made tens of millions of dollars of South Campus real estate investments on borrowed credit. Emerging from that steaming pile of 2007 bond issuances came the madcap $60 million renovation of The Pit, as well as a number of property acquisitions in the university’s Technology and Research Park, a quadrant of campus bordered by University Blvd. to the east and Avenida Cesar Chavez to the south. Two of those buildings were 1155 University Blvd., which UNM bought out of a land lease with Lockheed Martin, and 933 Bradbury Dr., which had previously served as a Social Security billing center.

As part of a Memorandum of Agreement signed in 2006, UNM agreed to rent a portion of 933 Bradbury Dr. to AIMS. Over the next several years, as the charter school’s enrollment outgrew its grounds, AIMS temporarily took additional space in two other Science & Technology Park buildings, an arrangement that was not ideal. Then, in the summer of 2017, Tom Neale and Park Manager Connie Vance approached AIMS Principal Kathy Sandoval-Snider with the idea of consolidating AIMS’s auxiliary space in a single wing of 1155 University Blvd., which another paying tenant had recently vacated.

As Real Estate Director, one of Neale’s primary responsibilities is to find ways of generating lease revenue in order to cover his department’s costs. This is particularly vital for the buildings of the South Campus, many of which the university went into debt in order to purchase or upgrade.

Neale’s boss, UNM Executive Vice President David Harris, was supportive of leasing the new space to AIMS. Given the commercial real estate market in Albuquerque, and UNM’s permanent state of financial anxiety, such a move would seem like a no-brainer. So, before he left for his vacation that fall — a transatlantic cruise — Harris deputized Neale and Associate VP Chris Vallejos to finalize the lease addendum with AIMS.

“Subsequent to these negotiations [with AIMS],” Harris told NMFishbowl.com in an email, “the Athletics Director indicated an interest in this space, but because we had negotiated in good faith with AIMS over an extended period, I authorized the approval of the lease.”

Nuñez’s hire was announced on August 31, 2017, and he told NMFishbowl.com that he first asked about the vacancy at 1155 University Blvd. “shortly after” his arrival in Albuquerque.

“I was touring our facilities and in particular our academic center, when I noticed the space that was adjacent to our academic center was vacant,” Nuñez said. “At that time I inquired about the availability of the space and to my knowledge, it was prior to (AIMS) even being a part of the conversation.”

In any case, Nuñez had two powerful allies in his corner, Lee and Doughty, who weren’t about to let this land go.

Over their five years on the Board of Regents, Lee and Doughty increasingly assumed hands-on roles in the affairs of the athletic department, having jointly served on the UNM hiring committees for both Nuñez and men’s basketball coach Paul Weir.

According to multiple sources, while Harris was away overseas, Lee aggressively tried to convince Vallejos to flout his boss’ orders and refrain from signing the new lease with AIMS. (Lee declined to respond to questions for this story.)

In the end, Vallejos stuck with the plan and ratified the lease addendum (technically, UNM Controller Elizabeth Metzger was the signatory), which would allow AIMS to take control of the new space on Jan. 1, 2018. According to the updated agreement, AIMS would initially pay UNM $15.50 per square foot for 14,700 square feet of space at 1155 University Blvd., with annual incremental increases. Over the deal’s six-year term, this would work out to $1,416,675 in rent money UNM would receive. 

Lee, sources say, was incensed by the wrench Harris had thrown in her plans for Athletics and dressed him down in a closed-door session upon his return from vacation. Harris, who declined to comment about the situation, thereafter fell into line, showing little desire to continuing fighting over an issue that so clearly animated a powerful regent with a reputation for seeking vengeance.

And so commenced the torturous process.

***

AIMS at UNM
The hallway currently shared by AIMS and the Lobo Center for Student-Athlete Success

“UNM Administration and the Regents have been lovely to work with,” Kathy Sandoval-Snider said in an email. “However the complaints from UNM Athletics started almost before we moved into 1155.  Lets just say UNM Athletics didn’t exactly roll out the Welcome Wagon!”

For one thing, there was the alleged vending-machine dustup.

“The athletic department claimed the children were ‘eating all our snacks,’” Sandoval-Snider said, “so we got our own machines.”

Nuñez disputed that he ever raised such complaints or was even aware of them. “I truly have much more to focus on these days than a vending machine, as you know,” Nuñez said.

At one point, Breda Bova, UNM’s longtime faculty athletics representative, who also sits on AIMS’s Board, unsuccessfully tried to facilitate a sit-down between the high school and the UNM athletics department. However, this wasn’t going to be resolved with a neighborly chat: Athletics wanted the second floor of 1155 University Blvd. all to itself. What’s more, it argued that AIMS was putting the UNM in NCAA jeopardy by having its students occupy a building frequented by Lobo athletes.

Over the next year, this would serve as Nuñez’s prime justification for why AIMS needed to be dislodged — and promptly so. He and other athletic officials repeatedly pitched this line before the Board of Regents, often at the suggestion of Lee. It was a rather effective argument, given that the audience was guaranteed to be unstudied in the abstruse rulebook of college sports’ governing legislation.

But was it a sincere argument? 

What Nuñez declined to say is that the athletic department had made inquiries to the NCAA about this very situation at the beginning of last year, and had been told explicitly that it didn’t constitute a violation.

Through a public records request, NMFishbowl.com obtained the NCAA’s Jan. 9, 2018 NCAA Interpretation Request to UNM’s “interpretation request,” as to the question of whether the athletic department could “share a space with a local charter school that includes high school aged kids.” Here was the NCAA’s full response:

“Based on the specific facts provided, including: the athletic department was not been involved in this request; the classrooms and office space to be used is being rented at the going rate for similar facilities and has had non-institutionally-related commercial tenants in the past; and the institution has not and is not recruiting any prospect- aged individuals from this charter school staff believes this arrangement is outside the scope of the legislation. However, the institution will want to monitor this arrangement to ensure that no recruiting activity takes place in the future.” 

In other words, unless UNM recruited AIMS students to play sports, there was no issue with having them in the same school building as some athletic department staff. And that shouldn’t have been the slightest issue since AIMS, a proudly self-avowed “nerd herd,” has not produced a single Division I athlete, according to Sandoval-Snider.

When asked by NMFishbowl.com, Nuñez declined to comment on how he has characterized NCAA regulations while stumping to relocate his department.“We have already addressed it previously,” he said.

Working off a false sense of urgency, UNM looked to quickly pry AIMS out of its just-signed lease without inviting a lawsuit. The charter school had already proven to be battle-tested in the courts, having litigated against the Rio Rancho school district over the construction of a second campus.

So, in the fall of 2018, UNM tendered an offer that AIMS couldn’t refuse. If the charter school gave up its space at 1155 University Blvd., UNM would build out the necessary space at 933 Bradbury Dr., so it could be entirely consolidated there.

“This was the original plan when we first moved here in 2006,” Sandoval-Snider said. “Although my parents would prefer to see expansion into 1155 University Blvd…we are thrilled to get what we can, and to see the whole school be under one roof.”

Since AIMS would pay no additional expenses as part of the consolidation, UNM would initially take on the estimated $1.5 million cost of the improvements.

But where to find that kind of money quickly — and quietly?

***

AIMS at UNM
The vending machines in the Student Support & Services Center

In conjunction with its buildup of the South Campus, the UNM Board of Regents approved in 2007 the creation of a new non-profit entity called Lobo Development Corporation, utilizing a state law that allowed public universities to form public-private entities for the purpose of developing land and revenue streams in its research parks. 

According to its original Articles of Incorporation, Lobo Development would be wholly controlled by UNM and would be overseen by a Board of Directors that included two university regents, the school president, and a handful of other top administrators.

One of the key arguments for establishing Lobo Development was that, by serving as UNM’s property management company, it would allow UNM to act with greater agility as it sought to turn its Science & Technology Park into a nerve center for high-tech private industry in Albuquerque. But in using this vehicle to further its commercial interests, UNM would also be entrusting a small band of regents and administrators with access to a side-pot of money and the ability to bypass traditional institutional processes and governmental oversights.

In its position as a real estate proxy, Lobo Development could help incrementally transition properties into the UNM portfolio through ground leases and other forms of financing, including the providing of interest-bearing loans to the university. To be sure, these kind of internal money transfers can create efficiencies, but they tend to come at the sacrifice of transparency and clarity. They also can incentivize those privileged few members of the club to look upon Lobo Development as a piggy bank for their pet projects.

At the end of last fiscal, the Lobo Development had $5,283,794 in reserve, an amount that exceeded the combined reserves of both the UNM Foundation and The UNM Lobo Club.

Because of the Science & Technology Park’s adjacency to the university’s athletic facilities, a position on the Lobo Development Board was eventually given to the UNM athletic director, while an increased focus was placed on real estate projects that would aggrandize the Lobo sports fan’s experience.

But over the last decade, one ambitious plan after another — most recently, a sports-entertainment district anchored by a Brian Urlacher-themed restaurant —  have been stymied by the same bottom line reality: UNM athletics is much better at consuming wealth than creating it.

Sitting atop Lobo Development’s current Board is none other than Marron Lee, who also chairs the Regent’s Finance and Facilities Committee, to which Lobo Development is supposed to report. In addition to three local business leaders, the rest of Lobo Development is overseen by Rob Doughty, Eddie Nuñez, David Harris, Chris Vallejos, and Paul Roth, the head of UNM Health Sciences.

On March 23, 2018, Lobo Development unanimously approved a $1.5 million, 15-year loan to the Board of Regents, for the purposes of building out classroom space for AIMS so that it could vacate 1155 University Blvd. The proposal was formalized in one-page memo drafted by Tom Neale, which stated, in part:

“Administration has requested the UNM Real Estate Department determine the feasibility of relocating and providing a permanent location for AIMS that will allow the entire building at 1155 University Boulevard for University-related occupancy.”

Nowhere in Neale’s memo, nor the meeting’s minutes, was there any mention of Athletics. And even though the relocation was predicated on AIMS’s consent, Sandoval-Snider said she wasn’t alerted to the plan until roughly six months later.

***

For at least its first two decades, the building atop 1155 University Blvd. had been a boon to UNM.

In 1995, the school leased the 2.9-acre parcel of land to the Martin Marietta Corporation, which had recently taken over a management contract for Sandia Labs.

“Our regents at the time thought that if they were to support the university by building in the research park, that would help stimulate business activity,” said Kim Murphy, who was UNM’s then-Director of Real Estate and still consults for Lobo Development.

Murphy recalled that Martin Marietta (which eventually merged into Lockheed Martin) paid above-market rate for the ground lease. Technology Venture Corporation, a non-profit business incubator founded by Lockheed Martin, anchored the space.

The lease agreement contained a clause that, if ever Lockheed Martin no longer wanted the building, UNM would be able to purchase it back for 80 percent of its book value.

“I can’t point to a specific business or activity that was directly related to it, but it gave our park a little more cache that a major corporation was located (there),” said Murphy.

By 2007, Lockheed Martin was looking to reduce its presence in Albuquerque and, with the onset of the financial crisis, commercial real estate was in decline. This allowed UNM to buy the building in the summer of 2008 at a relative bargain price of $3.6 million. The funding came from state appropriations and a $2 million general obligation bond.

Following the purchase, UNM was able to ink a short-term lease with Fidelity Investments, which needed temporary space while awaiting the completion of a new office complex at Mesa Del Sol. As part of the lease, Fidelity agreed to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars of improvements to the building.

Even after Fidelity decamped, UNM was able to continue leasing some of the space through Technology Venture Corporation.

Jamie Koch, who was serving as Regent president at the time, had an idea for how UNM could utilize this impressive piece of architecture it had acquired.

With The Pit remodeling underway across the street, Koch made the case that 1155 University Blvd. would be the perfect location to house a brand-new academic advisement center for the athletic department.

The NCAA had begun emphasizing a new academic rating system, punishing schools that failed to meet certain graduation or grade-point-average standards. In response, athletic departments around the country began sinking millions of dollars into trendy new tutoring hubs. Koch, a former two-sport UNM letterman and major athletics proponent, wanted the Lobos to keep up.

Thus begot the “state-of-the-art” Lobo Center for Student-Athlete Success.

“When I came here about two years ago, we were called athletic academic advisement,” Henry Villegas, UNM’s Associate AD-Student Development, crowed to the Albuquerque Journal in 2009. “Now, we’re becoming much more.”

While the plans for 1155 University Blvd. thrilled athletics officials, some faculty leaders raised concerns about the corresponding decision to shift a lion’s share of the campus academic support services into the same building, a convenience to athletes at the expense of the faculty and remaining student body. Others thought the $3.6 million capital improvement project for the building — at a time of steep academic cuts — was ill-considered.

“Koch and [David] Schmidly were out of control when it came to athletics,” said Loyola Chastain, who served as UNM Staff Council President at the time. “Nothing else mattered to either of them.”

In early 2009, UNM’s faculty Senate issued no-confidence votes against Harris, Koch and Schmidly.

***

It was Schmidly’s predecessor, Louis Caldera, who ushered AIMS onto the UNM campus 12 years ago.

The school had originally been founded in 2005 as Albuquerque High Tech High, the offshoot of a San Diego-based charter network that looked to prepare students for jobs in the technology industries. The Albuquerque spinoff was initially housed in a building near the airport and its take-off was turbulent. Shortly after launch, thee school’s affiliated charter network started to move to a for-profit model, which wasn’t permitted by New Mexico state law, forcing Albuquerque High Tech High to find a new sponsor in order to survive.

While its future was uncertain, the school had a number of influential backers, including then-Mayor Marty Chávez. At Chávez’s urging, Kathy Sandoval-Snider left her job running Albuquerque Public Schools’ Career Enrichment Center in the summer of 2006 to take over as principal for the charter school, which would re-christen itself the Albuquerque Institute of Mathematics and Science.

Several of AIMS’s board members were UNM faculty and thought a high-achieving high school would make for a symbiotic relationship with New Mexico’s flagship university. Chávez supported the idea and Caldera, a former California state legislator, rolled out the welcome mat. 

“I had worked with charter schools before I had come to UNM and I had visited High Tech High in San Diego,” Caldera told NMFishbowl.com. “I thought this school on our campus was a great opportunity for faculty and students on campus. It was a school that was STEM-focused which is where we wanted UNM and the state economy to be (moving) toward…It was a great public signifier of our commitment to developing young people in Albuquerque.”

Caldera resigned as UNM’s president in early 2006.

“This was all very eye-opening and fascinating to me,” he said recently, reflecting on his administrative experiences at the university. “The athletic aspirations of UNM, frankly, far-exceeded its budget. Honestly, athletics was one of the banes of my existence.”

In December 2008, UNM closed on the purchase of 933 Bradbury Dr. for $7.8 million, committing another $11.9 million in renovations so that the space could accommodate both AIMS and some staff from UNM Hospital. To fund the renovation expenses, the university initially master-leased the building to the Sandia Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has given tens of millions of dollars to the university. As part of the agreement, UNM would be able to buy the master lease back at a later date, which it did, in 2013, via the Lobo Development Corporation.

***

If Jamie Koch was the regent who got athletics its foothold 1155 University Blvd., then Marron Lee is the one who deserves credit for helping shove the rest of Eddie Nuñez’s department through the door.

Lee, who served as a state and federal prosecutor from the late 1990s to the early aughts, hails from a prominent New Mexico ranching family with a strong UNM legacy. The school’s Marron Hall, which houses The Daily Lobo student newspaper, is named for her great-grandmother, Frances Halloran Marron, herself a former school regent.

Together, Marron Lee and Rob Doughty, both appointees of former Gov. Susana Martinez, have tenaciously worked to consolidate power on the Board by forming alliances, stacking committees, and cowing perceived adversaries.

While both regents’ terms expire at the end of next year, their UNM legacies will almost certainly be defined by a combative, lockstep effort, at the Martinez administration’s urging, to prevent UNM Health Sciences from using its reserve funds to build a new hospital facility. In the process, they have helped deliver the Board — and the university, beyond — to its most politically charged and acrimonious state ever, as NMFishbowl.com previously documented.

While Doughty claims the Board’s top title, Lee is regarded by insiders as the real mastermind of the duo, although her chosen endeavors have at times called her judgment into question.

Lee was a major force behind the controversial and expensive proposal, two years ago, to convert a historic UNM building currently used for graduate fine arts studies into a newly refurbished home for the school’s Honors College. That plan was ultimately scrapped, after it was determined to be financially unfeasible.

Lee has also demonstrated an unyielding tenacity, regardless how picayune the objective.  

Last February, UNM’s internal auditor investigated a complaint that Lee had made off with a Nambé wolf-headed plaque that the Board purchased as a retirement gift for former Regent Jack Fortner. Fortner, as it were, had gotten crosswise with Martinez (and, by extension, Lee and Doughty) over his support of the proposed new UNM hospital. Although Lee disputed the characterization of thievery, she did acknowledge having recommended to Doughty that the plaque be given to someone else.

In addition to their loyalty to Martinez, Lee and Doughty have proven especially allegiant to the cause of Lobo sports — and this is clearly a personal interest. Both are frequent attendees of men’s basketball home games and have flown (for free) with the Lobo football team. They both were on the hiring committees that selected Nuñez and men’s basketball coach Paul Weir.

Over the last year, Lee and Doughty have been strong backers of the administration’s much-maligned decision to cut four Olympic sports — soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and beach volleyball — something that the new governor and a passel of state lawmakers have vowed to reverse. Although Lee had, as recently as 2016, argued against the need to eliminate teams, she has since become a leading enforcer of the plan, going so far as to threaten, at a Board meeting last September, that Lobo baseball would face elimination if the other axed sports cuts were retroactively reinstated.

No UNM matter seemed too small for Lee’s intervention, including the situational location of AIMS, towards which Lee has publicly signaled a potential bias.

During a May 2017 UNM Board of Regents meeting, Sandoval-Snider gave a presentation about the state of AIMS prior to a vote for approval of its latest Memorandum of Agreement with UNM.

When Sandoval-Snider discussed AIMS’s enrollment process, Lee drew a personal connection.

“If I may, you don’t just do a straight lottery, you have to do an application prior to even going into the lottery,” Lee said. 

“Actually you don’t,” Sandoval-Snider responded, explaining that parents only fill out their registration forms once their child has been chosen in the lottery.

“But my child did it two years ago. We had to fill out a form, prior to even being in the lottery,” Lee said. 

“You didn’t have to do that,” Sandoval-Snider replied. “All you needed was an application.”

“Maybe they didn’t want my child,” Lee responded, half-jokingly.

***

AIMS at UNM

Last May, the University of New Mexico announced that it had hired former Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden to a consulting contract, in which he would advise UNM on a top-down improvement of its struggling athletic department. Alden and Garnett Stokes had previously worked at Mizzou, where Stokes was provost, and the Albuquerque Journal reported that Alden’s $53,000 contract was to be paid directly out of Stokes’ office. (Yet another expense that was kept off Athletics’ books.)

Since stepping down as Missouri’s AD in 2015, Alden had built a nifty little consulting practice, MJR Advisors LLC, offering locus communis to mid-major programs in various states of disarray. In addition to his work with UNM, Alden has also consulted with University of Missouri-Kansas City and was hired, in December, to lead Cleveland State’s athletic department on a temporary basis.

If you pay an ex-athletic director to advise you, they’re bound to give you the advice that an athletic director would want to hear — and maybe that’s precisely the point.

As NMFishbowl.com previously reported, Alden has been a key expounder of the Nuñez-led plan to bring the staff of the UNM Lobo Club in-house and under the functional command of the athletic director. (That plan was recently ratified by the Lobo Club’s Board of Directors.)

But another Alden hobbyhorse, as testified to in emails between him and UNM officials, was the paramountcy of what he called “office consolidation.”

In a July 24 email to Stokes, Nuñez and Deputy Athletic Director Janice Ruggiero, Alden declared that by anchoring Athletics in 1155 University Blvd., the Lobos could claim “one of the nicest administrative buildings in the country.” (Ruggiero, incidentally, has officed there for years.)

Beginning last summer, Alden repeatedly egged on his client about the inevitable NCAA sanctioning that would come from the current setup in the Student Support and Services Center.

“This is (of) primary importance,” he wrote on July 26. “That will certainly not be seen as appropriate to have a high school located in the same building as an intercollegiate athletics program.”

Alden suggested that the athletic department meet with AIMS in an effort to convince them move out of the building before the start of the school year.

“It was communicated to me that there is alternative space for these folks and while it would have been preferable that they would have been alerted to this earlier,” he wrote, “there is urgency in working with them immediately to get this done. All part of the plan.” [Emphasis added.]

In a reply, Nuñez alerted Alden that he had been informed by Tom Neale that same day the relocation wouldn’t now be able to take place until summer 2019.

“I explained to him that was not what we had discussed and our plan was to move in this fall,” Nuñez wrote. “I am planning on speaking with David [Harris] to get his perspective but definitely need to have a larger conversation.”

Following the Lobo Development Corporation Board’s approval of the $1.5 million loan, the architectural firm Dekker Perich Sabatini was hired to conduct a feasibility study for the renovations to 933 Bradbury Dr. According to records, the firm’s $36,621 invoice would be paid directly by Lobo Development.

As this feasibility was being studied, another cockamamie proposal was about to steal the public’s attention.

***

At a Finance and Facilities Committee meeting on Sep. 4, Nuñez and Paul Weir presented as an information item a proposal to convert half of The Pit’s luxury suites into new office space for the basketball staffs. Not only was this a blunder of presumption on the part of Weir, who was promptly pilloried for the suggestion, but it devastatingly underscored the propensity of athletics to throw bad money after bad: The Pit suites, after all, were the original cornerstone of the $60 million renovation project. While the proposal would be swiftly beaten into abeyance, it may have still served as a useful distraction for the athletic department’s bigger real estate squeeze. What was the very next information item presented at that F&F meeting? “Recent Lobo Development Corporation Action to Relocate the AIMS Program to New Space.”

A week later, the full Board of Regents received its first briefing about the AIMS relocation— almost six months, to the date, after Lobo Development had approved the loan.

In his presentation, Tom Neale exclusively framed the plan in terms of the charter school’s needs, saying that AIMS’s current bifurcation between two buildings had created “operations constraints as well as safety constraints.”

UNM, Neale said, was trying to move quick for AIMS’s sake, so that it could be settled in time for the 2019 school year. Thus, Lobo Development’s role: had UNM tried to run the plan through its“typical capital improvement process,” Neale said, it would have had to seek approval from the full Board of Regents, as well as the state’s Higher Education Department and Board of Finance.

Regent Suzanne Quillen questioned the financial consequences of the plan, noting that the university had received “pretty decent revenue” from AIMS’s rent at 1155 University Blvd. Neale acknowledged that the rent payments would now go to “amortize the cost of the debt service for that expansion.”

Regent Tom Clifford, a Finance and Facilities Committee member, also advertised his wariness. He pressed Neale to identify the athletic department’s role as a main beneficiary of the rearrangement. Clifford then made mention about a “long discussion” the regents supposedly had the previous year about the exact same plan. “We were told that couldn’t happen for various reasons,” Clifford said. “And now suddenly it can happen.” (No such conversation is referenced in the minutes of its 2018 meetings.)

Clifford asked Neale to explain how this entire plan was “consistent with the purposes of the Lobo Development Corporation.” Neale struggled to answer, perhaps because there wasn’t a good answer.

“It’s one of the benefits that Lobo (Development) can step in and facilitate projects on behalf of the university that we otherwise would have trouble with,” was the best the real estate director could come up with.

(In a statement to NMFishbowl.com, Neale made clear that the Real Estate Department had been “directed by the Administration” to relocate AIMS.)

Regent Michael Brasher, a former Albuquerque City Councilor who was the Board’s newest appointee, was even more direct in his dissent.

“That is part of my problem with this whole thing,” Brasher snapped. “If I had a chance to vote no, I would give this my ‘no’ vote. But since this is an information item, thank you.” (Brasher declined to comment to NMFishbowl.com.)

Sensing the room turning against the plan, Lee reached for the ace up her sleeve.

“Mr. Nuñez, could you please also talk a little about the problem with recruitment and compliance with the NCAA and the need for expediency,” Lee said.

Nuñez, in turn, provided an utter word salad of an explanation, the incoherence of which should have betrayed its unreliability.

Quoth the AD: “There is an NCAA side of it that you have to be careful — I mean, as we articulated at F&F, I mean they are constantly changing, I mean high school — softball is a great example of this and men’s basketball, I mean, right now you cannot have an intermingling with kids that are in seventh grade. I mean, it’s even beyond — it’s the junior-high age groups now. So, it’s really becoming problematic from a recruiting side. So, trying to not have that on the table is something else we have to consider and this is something we have expressed our concerns about.” 

Nuñez mentioned nothing about the fact that the athletic department had been explicitly told by the NCAA last January that its partial co-location with AIMS was “outside the scope of the legislation.”

Still, Quillen expressed some skepticism at the idea that there was a real NCAA rule violation at stake. She noted that there were dual enrollment programs throughout the state in which high school and college students would intermingle. “But it gives you 15,000 more square feet of office space,” she snarked at Nuñez, “so I guess that’s good.”

***

AIMS at UNM
Dreamstyle Stadium reflecting off the windows of 1155 University Blvd.

As it turned out, convincing AIMS to switch places in exchange for a free-of-cost $1.5 million facility upgrade was the easy part.

In order to now clear the necessary space at 933 Bradbury Dr., UNM would have to move out about 150 staffers from its hospital’s human resources and patient financial services departments. Moreover, those staffers just happened to represent the highest workplace density in the entire university.

As Neale told the Finance and Facilities Committee at its Dec. 4 meeting, finding a way to move the hospital staffers and their high-tech work stations had become the most inscrutable challenge in a long line of them. 

The initial plan to transfer the hospital staff to another location within UNM’s Science & Technology Park came with a $1.4 million price tag, owing primarily to the costliness of rewiring the information technology for their workstations. A second relocation option could be done for $860,000 — a more manageable figure, sure, but still a sizable funding gap.

“We’re having a challenge in how to pay that,” Neale told the committee. “The hospital is not gaining any ground in this relocation. It doesn’t free up or create a less-dense work environment for their employees. It is just swapping out that space.”

“How about Lobo Development?” Marron Lee said, suggesting that there could be more juice to squeeze out of that fruit.

David Harris interjected to explain that Lobo Development had already done all it could do in providing the original $1.5 million loan for AIMS. “That’s not the problem,” Harris said. “The other problem that Tom doesn’t mention is how quickly the hospital can relocate so that AIMS could begin the next school year in a consolidated space. That just seems less and less likely.”

At one point, Neale summoned a color-coded map of the South Campus to illustrate for the committee the “complexity of the move.”

“We could have taken care of this before we signed the other lease,” Clifford complained, “and I just can’t fathom why this wasn’t done.”

Rob Doughty sensed an opening to relitigate Harris’s original sin, such as he conceived of it: leasing away the space that Doughty and Lee wanted to give away for free to athletics.

“What authority did Chris [Vallejos] or the university have to enter into this lease without the approval of the regents?” Doughty challenged Neale.

Nevermind that the entire relocation plan, including the $1.5 million loan from Lobo Development, had all gone forward without the full Board’s knowledge, let alone approval.

But before Neale could answer the rhetorical question, Vallejos, who was sitting in the back of the room, stood up and walked to the front. “I’ll speak to that,” he announced.

Vallejos had already found himself under siege that week. Two days before, the Albuquerque Journal reported that he had once been the subject of a human resource investigation, in which it was determined that his job performance was “not at the level expected for an associate vice president.”

“Regent Doughty, members of the committee,” Vallejos crowed, “I was directed by Mr. Harris. He was my boss and he was the one who asked me to sign the lease. He was on vacation.” (Vallejos declined to comment for this article.)

Harris, who was due to retire from UNM within weeks, remained silent. And nobody in the room made a peep about the elephant named Athletics.

When asked by Garnett Stokes whether all the pieces could be put in place in time for the following school year, Neale vacillated: “We may have missed that opportunity.” Given all the predicaments, he said, there was “a lot of potential for slippage.”

“I’m frustrated, because I was under the impression that we were making progress,” Stokes said, “then I discovered that, suddenly, there are issues to be resolved that I wasn’t aware of.”

This could have been the moment for a cautious step backwards, a point to reflect on the cost-benefit analysis of this nonessential realty reshuffling. But instead, UNM’s first-year president pressed forward, ordering a working group to convene in earnest so as to plot the way forward.

“Clearly, it was more complex than I realized,” she conceded. (Stokes declined to comment.)

***

AIMS at UNM

At the full Board meeting eight days later, Neale announced that he had found a building candidate for the soon-to-be-displaced hospital staff. The prospective site was outside the Science & Technology Park, and the school had already entered into lease negotiations. He wouldn’t specify beyond that.

“This has been a big circle for over a year now,” Suzanne Quillen opined, showing no more confidence in the plan than before. “It just seems like a very long domino effect of moving AIMS” out of 1155 University Blvd.

“Regent Quillen, I agree,” Neale said. “It’s been a torturous process jumping through the procurement hoops and the financial feasibility.”

Tom Clifford asked Neale if the hospital was willing to commit long-term to keeping their relocated employees in the next building.

“I hope it’s not a temporary concept in their minds,” Clifford said.

“That’s absolutely our mindset,” Neale said. “Personally, I never recommend a large block of lease space in a third-party lease that we don’t have long-term control over. It puts us over a barrel when we go to renew.”

(Clifford and Quillen both declined to comment to NMFishbowl.com.)

Once more, as was her wont, Marron Lee raised the bogeyman of NCAA violations to bear up the plan. This time, she summoned to the podium Rob Robinson, the athletic department’s outgoing chief financial officer, as her expert witness. 

“There is another issue about having student athletes and high school students mingling together in the same building,” Lee presaged.

Robinson duly obliged her:

“Just from an NCAA compliance standpoint,” he said, “dealing with high school students, which could be viewed as prospective student-athletes, as well as our current student-athletes, it is best to have that separate, as well as any other issues as far as intermingling of high school and college students in general.”

(Robinson did not respond to a voicemail message seeking comment.)

On Dec. 16, Mike Alden emailed Stokes and Nuñez with a status report, just before he was headed to Vietnam on a monthlong work trip.

“I have on several occasions recommended moving the high school from your athletic department building,” Alden wrote. “While it is not an NCAA violation to house a high school in your building, it is highly unusual and creates a very high probability that violations would occur.” [Emphasis added.]

Alden’s contract with UNM, for “consulting/advising services as needed,” runs through April 30.

Robinson lasted just about a year in his post as the Lobos’ top number cruncher before deciding to hightail back to his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., where he has since taken a job as an assistant city attorney. 

After UNM had officially announced its sport cuts in July, Marron Lee had tasked the athletic department to present its revenue and expense figures to the Finance & Facilities Committee each month. Robinson was the one who would deliver the reports, and he gave his final such presentation on Jan. 8. In the meeting, he said he was confident that he was leaving UNM in good financial footing.

Lee, in turn, thanked Robinson for coming to UNM “at a very difficult time.” Tom Clifford applauded the January financial report, showing a 10-percent drop for the month in athletic department expenses. “I hope that is a sign of good things that are happening,” Clifford said.

Eddie Nuñez dittoed.

“We’ve done a much better job getting in front of it and trying to work with our staff and coaches to make sure that we find the most efficient and effective ways to do things,” Nuñez said.

Clifford said that this success needed to be communicated to the skeptics in the state legislature.

“I realize they are expressing concern about athletics, but I think an important part of our message should be that we are making a sincere effort here to manage those expenses, and this proves it,” he said.

It was only too ironic, then, that the very next agenda items was an update on the AIMS relocation — the epic that signifies the lingering insincerity in UNM’s commitment to curb athletic-related spending.

Tom Neale informed the committee that there had been yet another change in plans to the hospital staff component. Over the holiday break, he said, UNM had now found a different option, which would allow the hospital to “essentially plug-and-play” their work stations in a new building at a relatively minimal cost. Neale declined to specify the site, but sources have told NMFishbowl.com that it is the Plaza Campana building in downtown Albuquerque, which has served as headquarters for the departing Molina Healthcare.

However, even if this last pressing domino falls, there will still be other contingencies to sort out. How much will it cost to move athletics into 1155 University Blvd.? (Nobody has said.) How long will the hospital be content with having 150 of its employees in a building miles away? (“We are always looking for the most efficient and effective ways to improve workflow,” is all a hospital spokesman would say.) What happens to the hospital’s lease at 933 Bradbury Dr., once it moves a sizable portion of its staff elsewhere? UNM can’t afford for it to pay less, given that there are still millions of dollars of debt that UNM owes on the original improvements made to 933 Bradbury Dr.. 

***

In the two years before Nuñez’s arrival, Lobo athletics faced no less than three financial scandals that involved larger cash losses than any misappropriated golf junket to Scotland.

There was the alleged $64,000 in unreconciled university credit card payments made by former men’s basketball staffer Cody Hopkins.  There was the $150,000 that former men’s basketball coach Craig Neal was overpaid due to a bookkeeping error that wasn’t caught until much later.  And there was the nearly half-million dollars of revenue from the rental of The Pit’s most expensive seats that went uncollected for years.

Just those three examples of administrative failure—and let’s not even get into the catastrophic remodeling of Wise Pies Arena; the buyouts to no-longer-wanted coaches; or the lunacy of various corporate agreements — total more than $700,000 of lost or misdirected money.  UNM Athletics could do a lot with that stash of cash.  They might even be enough to field a soccer team.

Although all of those mistakes occurred under the Paul Krebs administration, Eddie Nuñez promised reform.

Instead, the first significant action taken by Nuñez after the summertime sports reductions was to give a $175,000 golden handshake to former Deputy Athletic Director Brad Hutchins, so that Nuñez could get his preferred right-hand man one year sooner. And now, he’s about to see through this land grab at 1155 University Blvd.

Here, then, lies the real exploitation of Lobo athletics: not in some seamy British Isles boondoggle, but in the regular and routine squandering of money by collegiate athletic administrators — who don’t respect the value of a taxpayer dollar in cash-poor New Mexico — and abetted by other university leaders who have forsaken their oversight roles in writing one blank check after another to Lobo sports.

On Saturday, Nuñez and Garnett Stokes made their first joint appearance before the state’s House Appropriations Committee, where they defended UNM’s decision to cut sports and tried to distinguish their new regime as the one willing to make the hard financial sacrifices for Lobo Athletics.

And the sacrifices that you just don’t want to make? You simply find a way for main campus to pay. It’s not that hard.

“We have made some tremendous strides over the last year,” Nuñez told the legislators in Santa Fe over the weekend. “We have made changes within our staff, we have made our department more efficient, and I am going to continue to do that. Our mission is not complete.”