FARMINGTON — The Farmington Convention and Visitor Bureau receives 95 percent of its funding from city taxes, but according to city attorney Jay Burnham, it is not subject to New Mexico's sunshine laws.
The Daily Times has been requesting documents from the city and the bureau under the state's open records law that might shed light on the embezzlement of nearly a half-million dollars by a former bureau director. Documents provided have had key information redacted.
A public record request sent on Monday to bureau Executive Director Tonya Stinson was denied. The request sought information identifying individuals who benefited from the embezzlement.
"To me it's no different than if we hired, let's say, a consultant and we paid them city money," Burnham said. "That doesn't make them a city entity. We're just paying them to do a job."
Burnham said the bureau is an independent, nonprofit organization.
But Gregory Williams, a New Mexico Foundation for Open Government legal officer, said sunshine laws do apply to the bureau. The Foundation for Open Government is a nonprofit organization dedicated to government transparency.
Williams cited a state case, filed July 26, 2012, in which the New Mexico Court of Appeals sided with a woman suing the city of Truth or Consequences for withholding public records. Those records were held by an independent contractor.
The court ruled that because the organization had been contracted to perform public services with a public entity -- the city -- all its records are public records.
Because the bureau conducts the city's business with public money, Williams said, its records are public.
The bureau receives about $1.2 million in city taxes per year, according to a summary of the bureau's budget for fiscal years 2006 through 2014. The money comes from the city's lodgers tax, a 5-percent tax that residents and visitors pay on lodging fees within city limits, said Andy Mason, the city's Director of Administrative Services. The bureau share of the lodgers tax revenue is about 70 percent of the total.
The bureau's tax revenue funding, Mason said, must be used to market and promote the city, according to a written agreement between the city and the bureau.
But, between 2006 and 2012, the bureau's former director, Debbie Dusenbery, allegedly embezzled $443,727.40 from the bureau, according to a Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau Embezzlement Report, dated May 15, 2012. In February 2012, her body was found in an Arizona desert with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
The money is still unaccounted for but a few people who benefitted from the embezzlement have been identified.
Police Sgt. Rick Simmons and his wife received round-trip airfare and lodging, according to the police report of Robert Perez, a police detective who investigated the case. Others who benefited, according to police reports, include Dusenbery's former boyfriend, Russell Smith; another boyfriend, Ronald Fellabaum; Simmons' father-in-law; and Becky Walling, a former bureau executive director.
"The inspection of public records act requires the city and the (Farmington) Convention and Visitors Bureau to produce those records," Williams said. "The (bureau) is funded by taxpayer money and operates under a contact with the city.
"Its records," he said, "are public."