Opinion: Unpaid Hoops Suites Latest of UNM Woes

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Copyright 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)


The hits just seem to keep on comin' from UNM Athletics.

Let's run down the top of the charts:

  • athletics hasn't made its budget in eight of the past 10 years and owes the university more than $4 million;
  • the state Attorney General's Office and the state Auditor's Office are conducting separate investigations into Lobo athletics, both instigated by a 2015 Lobo boosters' golf junket to Scotland paid for in part with public money;
  • athletics director Paul Krebs suddenly retires in May with two years left on his contract;
  • UNM finds Athletics hasn't undergone a full audit in at least six years and hasn't had a chief financial officer for more than a year;
  • and now, officials reveal about $432,000 in payments for 24 Pit suites hadn't been collected, going as far back as the 2010-11 basketball season, and again the AG is investigating.

Pit suite rental money doesn't go straight to the university. Instead, it takes a circuitous route through the Lobo Club, the fundraising arm of Lobo athletics, which falls under the umbrella of the nonprofit UNM Foundation. Both insist they are "independent" of the university and claim they are not subject to the open records laws that apply to state entities.

That clubby secrecy makes it nearly impossible to track where money comes from or how it is spent, smelling a lot like money laundering and begging the question of how a private nonprofit can rent out space in a public university's sports arena, collect the rent and then pass it along to UNM.

When suite payments do get to UNM, they are used to pay off the $60 million renovation of the arena undertaken in 2009-2010. But only around half the suites were rented out for the 2016-17 basketball season, with the advertised price ranging from $40,000 to $50,000.

Meanwhile, many suite holders say they were unaware they had past-due balances, again putting the accountability ball in the Lobo Club and UNM Foundation court.

Interim UNM President Chaouki Abdallah has named longtime athletics administrator Janice Ruggiero acting AD and Chris Vallejos, associate vice president for institutional support services, to temporarily oversee Athletics' finances. Both have pledged to cooperate with the state investigation and audit and ensure the department is run in a fiscally sound manner. But that's long after the buzzer, and at this point the public needs more than a team pep talk.

Hopefully, a full accounting of the suites fiasco will be forthcoming - and made public. The first step occurred this week when UNM Athletics released a list of the outstanding balances on the Pit suites. It turns out one of the biggest deadbeats is UNM itself - the Regents owed $30,000. They said they were never invoiced.

UNM Athletics, which operates on an annual budget of roughly $33 million, is arguably the most public face of the state's flagship university. As such, it deserves critical oversight and transparency, almost impossible with the web that has some of the finances of UNM shrouded in the secrecy of nonprofit and private enterprises.

It is one thing to claim nonprofit status — and the privacy that comes with that - when your only activity is to raise funds. But UNM and Lobo Club relationship clearly goes beyond that - from the Lobo Club selling tickets and suites to requiring some ticket buyers to donate to that club to confusion over who's working for the Lobo Club and who's working for UNM. Now a new lawsuit targets the company Learfield Communications LLC and its subsidiary Lobo Sports Properties (who own Athletics' licensing rights) that refuses to make public their dealings on behalf of UNM. Since Dreamstyle naming rights for UNM's football stadium and basketball arena is with the private company and not UNM, the only way the Journal was able to get the contract was because Dreamstyle owner Larry Chavez agrees with the importance of transparency and released it.

Based on results of the state investigations and audit, UNM should rewrite Athletic's financial playbook. And part of that should be restructuring its marketing and fundraising arms so UNM finances can no longer be shrouded in secrecy.

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July 17, 2017


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