When the New Mexico Gladiators take the field for their home games at the Rio Rancho Events Center, the professional indoor football team is stepping onto turf paid for by the city of Albuquerque.
That’s a problem, according to a new investigation.
In a report released Friday, the city of Albuquerque’s Office of Inspector General, or OIG, determined that the $236,622 turf purchase was inappropriate.
It “appears to be a donation/gift” to benefit the privately owned Gladiators — the team’s logo is printed on the field — and violates a New Mexico Constitution provision barring public entities from donating to private corporations, the independent city investigator’s report said.
A city attorney, Mayor Tim Keller’s administration and the Gladiators’ owner disagree. They say the city receives non-monetary compensation in exchange for the team’s temporary use of the playing surface in Rio Rancho, though the report raises questions about whether that is true.
“The OIG was able to obtain sufficient evidence that the use of the City of Albuquerque taxpayer dollars, to pay for artificial turf installed in a facility located in another municipality for the benefit of a privately-owned entity was a misuse of city funds,” Inspector General Melissa Santistevan wrote.
The report describes a “rushed” acquisition process and said documentation shows that many people involved in the turf purchase — city employees, a city attorney and the turf vendor — knew the field was being purchased for use by the Gladiators in Rio Rancho.
Also according to the report, Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Director Dave Simon provided incorrect information when the City Council grilled city administrators about the turf during a Jan. 18, 2023, meeting. Multiple councilors questioned why Albuquerque would pay for equipment installed in another city.
Simon told the council the city contributed $74,000 to the project while the state contributed the rest. However, the OIG cited records showing the city paid the entire sum and never was reimbursed by the state.
Simon said he was not available for an interview Friday.
Though state lawmakers had appropriated $160,000 for turf playing fields at park and recreational facilities in Albuquerque, the city paid for the turf and its installation in April 2022 — prior to receiving the state money.
When it sought the state reimbursement several months later, the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration denied the request, saying the city’s use of the funding violated the terms of the appropriation and, if the city used the funds in the proposed manner, it would also violate the state’s Anti-Donation Clause.
The city used bond money that Albuquerque voters approved for parks and recreation facilities, the OIG wrote.
The city still expects the state reimbursement, city management wrote in response to the OIG’s findings.
A spokeswoman in Simon’s office said Friday the city has a signed notice of obligation from the state for the $160,000 contribution.
The city retains ownership of the field, which also sports the “One Albuquerque” logo. It is merely allowing the Gladiators and Global Spectrum — the private company that operates the Rio Rancho Events Center — to use it in exchange for “valuable consideration,” managing city attorney Alan Heinz wrote in a letter included with the OIG report.
The parties’ agreement requires Global Spectrum and the Gladiators to host and staff 14 youth events per year and for the team to provide the city 50 free tickets to each home game.
The OIG’s investigation cast doubt about whether they were meeting those terms. A city employee who was supposed to know about the youth events said none were scheduled from April 2021 to January 2023, and multiple city staffers somehow involved in the turf purchase said they had never personally seen the free tickets, according to the report.
“The conveyance of the indoor turf for the (Gladiators) installed at the Rio Rancho Events Center appears to amount to a donation/gift as there is no evidence of consideration on the part of the (Gladiators) or the Rio Rancho Events Center to the city,” the report states.
But Gladiators owner Gina Prieskorn-Thomas said her team has met its obligations “and then some.”
She said tickets are distributed to “various youth organizations affiliated with the city” and that the youth camps have occurred as required. She said Friday she provides camp attendance reports directly to Simon, but could not furnish them to the Journal until she’d consulted with an attorney because they contain children’s contact information.
Prieskorn-Thomas said she lobbied state legislators for the turf field and that it was initially supposed to go into Tingley Coliseum, a state-owned facility where the Gladiators previously played.
When the pandemic prevented them from using the venue in 2021, they relocated to Rio Rancho. While there is no agreement yet to return to Tingley, she said she is in discussions with property representatives to move back.
“There was never any intent for that field not to be in Albuquerque,” she said.
Franchesca E. Perdue, a city spokeswoman, said there the city’s purchase of the turf was done properly.
“The OIG report was misinformed. Under their logic, CABQ could not buy a track for the Lobos, netting for the Isotopes or turf for the United; all of which we have done for years,” she said in a written statement.