Was UNM BSing Accreditor on AG Probe?

By Daniel Libit

Since taking the job one year ago, University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes has routinely professed her commitment to lead the school into a new era of openness and honesty. (You can Google, “Stokes + UNM + transparency,” for a representative sample of those professions). But given her failed attempt late last year to persuade UNM’s accreditor not to call further attention to an ongoing state investigation into the school and its athletics department, it seems those praiseworthy days may still be a ways off.

In November, UNM’s regional accreditation agency, the Higher Learning Commission, informed the school that it was planning to publicly designate it “under governmental investigation,” following media reports about the New Mexico Attorney General’s inquiry into UNM and its athletic department.

Through a public records request, NMFishbowl.com recently obtained correspondence between Stokes and HLC since that time.

In a Nov. 13 letter, HLC President Barbara Gellman-Danley wrote to Stokes about the publication of the AG’s “Transparency Report” two months prior, the findings of which “raise potential additional concerns regarding the University’s compliance with the Criteria for Accreditation,” Gellman-Danley said.

UNM had previously been designated for interim monitoring by HLC, following the release of a special investigation report by the New Mexico State Auditor the previous November. Although the AG’s subsequent transparency report did not immediately lead to new monitoring requirements, Gellman-Danley informed Stokes that it had prompted HLC to impose the additional designation.

“[T]he Commission has become aware that the University cannot be excluded from an ongoing, potentially criminal, investigation by the Attorney General’s office unrelated to the findings in the Transparency Report and which surfaced as a result of the recent execution of a search warrant related to former University employees,” Gellman-Danley wrote.

She further explained that the purpose of designating a school “under governmental investigation” was “to inform the public that the institution is being investigated by a governmental entity and that the Commission is aware of the situation and is monitoring its developments.”

In her response letter two weeks later, Stokes tried to downplay the AG’s investigation, suggesting that it was solely focussed on former Athletic Director Paul Krebs, who had resigned the previous summer. Krebs would eventually be charged with five criminal counts related to his role in planning a 2015 Lobo booster golf trip to Scotland. Stokes told HLC she was “surprised” by its interpretation that the university, itself, was in the AG’s crosshairs.

“As was discussed on the call this morning,” Stokes wrote in her Nov. 30 letter, “to the best of its knowledge, the University is unaware that the investigation at issue is broader or different in scope than the Kreb’s [sic] inquiry or that the University itself is being investigated.”  Stokes encouraged HLC to “inquire further into this issue” before imposing the designation.

But was UNM really “unaware” that the AG’s Office was scruitizing matters beyond Krebs’s Scotland boondoggle? Or was the university’s leadership feigning ignorance in yet another risible effort to keep public shaming at bay?

As NMFishbowl.com reported last year, the AG’s Office had, by that point, already made numerous document requests of UNM that had nothing to do with Krebs or the Scotland trip. On Jan. 23, 2018, the AG’s General Counsel Kenneth Salter sent UNM’s top lawyer Elsa Cole a letter requesting 37 different categories of documents, which sought information on everything from the school’s public records policy, to the Cody Hopkins P-Card saga, to the failed collection of Pit luxury suite revenue. A month later, the AG’s Office followed up with a supplemental request for UNM police investigative materials that related to an alleged, on-campus rape by a Lobo football player in early 2016.

Four days before Stokes wrote to HLC, the Daily Lobo published a story quoting UNM interim Provost Richard Wood, who also tried to make the case against the “under governmental investigation” designation. However, in so doing, Wood seemed to at least acknowledge that the AG was probing UNM’s athletic department, as a whole.

“It’s not a government investigation of the University, it’s of a particular piece,” Wood told the student paper at the time.

In a statement to NMFishbowl.com, UNM spokesman Cinnamon Blair said that the letter to HLC was meant to suggest that the AG’s investigation was focussed squarely on athletics, even though Stokes had described it as limited to the “Kreb’s [sic] inquiry.”

“The letter to HLC speaks for itself,” Blair said. “Although the AG has in the past requested a broad array of documents, and has now issued two reports, one identifying transparency and the other financial risk areas, it is clear that such reports relate to the Athletics department.  Our interactions with the Attorney General’s office prior to such reports have been squarely about Athletics employees and finances, thus the statement that we are unaware of ongoing investigations pertaining to other non-Athletics related matters.”

In addition, Blair’s explanation fails to account for the voluminous amount of non-Athletics related documents the AG sought in its Jan. 23, 2018 document request.

Sure enough, after HLC looked further into the matter, as Stokes had beckoned, the accreditor became only more convinced of its original position. Last month, HLC again wrote to Stokes, this time informing her of its decision to formally designate UNM “under governmental investigation.”

Gellman-Danley told Stokes that, since their previous correspondence, the accreditation agency had teleconferenced with the AG’s Office, determining that it “cannot be disputed that there exists an active, ongoing investigation by that office of the institution.”

As it so happened, Gellman-Danley’s letter arrived in Stokes’s inbox on Feb. 6, the same day the AG filed its criminal complaint against Krebs. Ratifying HLC’s decision to designate UNM “under governmental investigation,” the AG’s Office simultaneously released a 13-page report on UNM’s financial risk areas, which addressed a myriad of problems and institutional shortcomings state investigators had encountered while probing the university. Those included big-picture problems like the “circular flow of money and oversight” between the various Lobo sports stakeholders, as well as the perceived lack of independence of the university’s Internal Audit department.

Earlier this week, HLC conducted its biennial site visit at UNM, as part of its decade-long reaccreditation process. The “under governmental investigation” designation will remain in place until the AG’s Office has formally indicated that the school is in the clear. Meanwhile, HLC was planning to wait until after the site visit to determine whether additional “special monitoring” was warranted.

A spokesman for HLC declined to comment for this story, citing the organization’s standard policy for not publicly addressing institutional cases in the review process.

“The investigation into the University of New Mexico athletics department is ongoing,” AG spokesman David Carl said in a statement. “As such, we cannot comment beyond the public record. We look forward to pursuing positive outcomes for New Mexicans in a court of law.”

Meanwhile, the jury remains out on whether Stokes is the real reformer many had hoped for when she replaced interim President Chaouki Abdallah last March.

Last month, Stokes told the Albuquerque Journal that she was pausing a university plan to relocate the athletic department, at a seven-figure cost to the school’s bottom-line, following a report by NMFishbowl.com.

“We’ve decided to step back and make sure that we understand for ourselves what we’re going to do and then decide what’s going to be in the institution’s best interest,” Stokes told the Journal’s editorial board. At a December meeting of the UNM Board of Regents Finance and Facilities committee, Stokes said she was “frustrated” to learn the plan was “clearly more complex than I realized.”

However, as NMFishbowl.com reported, Stokes had been involved in the earliest key decisions related to the relocation, namely a March 2018 Lobo Development Board meeting where a $1.5 million loan, earmarked for the project, was approved.

Featured Image by Spatms / Wikimedia