A federal grand jury is investigating how a California firm that contributed to the political activities of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the nominee to head the Commerce Department, won a lucrative government contract.
A person familiar with the proceedings told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the panel is looking into possible "pay-to-play" dealings between CDR Financial Products and someone in a position to push the contract through with the state of New Mexico. The person asked not to be named because the proceedings are secret.
The proceedings follow an FBI probe in which investigators sought documents from the New Mexico Finance Authority. Investigators also interviewed former and current authority officials about New Mexico's 2004 contract with CDR for the $1.6 billion transportation program.
CDR was paid a total of $1.48 million in 2004 and 2005 for its work, according to documents provided by the state.
Asked whether the probe focused only on CDR's actions in securing or executing the contract, the person with knowledge of the investigation said, "It is more than that."
Richardson ignored two shouted questions about the company at his afternoon news conference in Santa Fe and left the room.
Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos did not confirm the grand jury probe but said the governor's office is "aware of questions surrounding some financial transactions at the New Mexico Finance Authority."
"We expect any state agency that is approached with questions to cooperate with federal officials," he said.
Richardson is President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the Department of Commerce. An official with Obama's transition office did not have immediate comment Tuesday.
CDR was part of a team of investment and financial advisers selected by the authority to piece together a complex bond financing deal for a highway and transportation construction program. Richardson won legislative approval for that program in 2003.
The authority is a quasi-public agency that issues bonds and provides other financing to state and local governments for projects ranging from buildings to drinking water systems. Nine of its 12 members are either appointed by the governor or serve as his cabinet secretaries.
The agency provided bond management services to the state Department of Transportation for the administration's highway construction program, which was called GRIP — Governor Richardson's Investment Partnership.
CDR and its CEO, David Rubin, have contributed at least $110,000 to three political committees formed by Richardson, according to an AP review of campaign finance records.
The largest donation, $75,000, was made by CDR in June 2004 — a couple of months after the transportation financing arrangement won state approval — to a political committee that Richardson established before the Democratic National Convention that year.
Richardson served as chairman of the Boston convention, and the committee, Si Se Puede! Boston 2004 Inc., helped pay convention expenses for Richardson's staff and supporters. The contribution was reported by the committee as coming from Chambers, Dunhill, Rubin and Co., a former name for CDR.
Rubin contributed $25,000 in late October 2003 — when the Legislature was debating the transportation construction program — to another Richardson political committee, Moving America Forward. Rubin gave $10,000 to Richardson's re-election campaign in 2005.
Allan Ripp, a spokesman for CDR, said Tuesday that the company was selected for the transportation financing contract through a "rigorous and thoroughly vetted" competitive bidding process.
As for suggestions of favoritism from New Mexico officials in return for political contributions, Ripp said, "The firm would assert that it's ridiculous and offensive to suggest that."
Ripp said Rubin is politically liberal and has given millions of dollars to political and Jewish causes over the years. Rubin also was born in Mexico, and Richardson is a prominent Hispanic politician who grew up in Mexico and whose mother was Mexican.
"Mr. Rubin makes his own contributions based on his own political sympathies, which are not secret." Ripp said. "He's very vocal about the causes he supports."