Legal costs, impact on women often overlooked in lawsuits

When a state agency settles a lawsuit, often times the public’s focus is on how much money the state settled for. But an often overlooked portion of legal battles with state agencies is how much the state paid for legal representation. 

Since former Gov. Susana Martinez left office nine months ago, there have been a number of news reports about settlement payouts to a handful of former state employees for alleged workplace discrimination. Often, public scrutiny is aimed at the plaintiffs. In a high profile settlement involving former Department of Public Safety employees, New Mexico’s former State Police Chief, who was accused of sexual harassment, called the claims from his former employees baseless and accused them of extorting money from tax payers. But lawyers from two different lawsuits covered extensively by NM Political Report argue that there should be more focus on how much the state pays for long, drawn-out legal defenses to ultimately settle for hundreds of thousands of dollars, specifically when women are the accusers. 

 ‘It’s going to be like a proctology exam’

In December 2017, less than a month after the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center agreed to cut a jury trial short and settle with a former medical resident, Anesthesiology Chair Hugh Martin broke some bad news to his faculty—they would not be getting bonuses that year. 

“I regret to inform the faculty that due to the recent legal settlement with the former dismissed problem resident, Cyndi Herald, that the Department had to reallocate the monies I had planned to use for a retention bonus to pay the settlement legal costs to Ms. Herald/Attorney Lisa Curtis,” Martin wrote. 

The “problem resident” Martin referred to, Cynthia Herald, had spent years in a legal battle with her former employer.

Could Toulouse Oliver be part of a Senate ‘Squad?”

New Mexico’s primary elections are still more than eight months away, but that hasn’t slowed down candidates for U.S. Senate. Both the Republican and Democratic primaries have multiple candidates already, but arguably the Democratic race is the closest watched so far. 

Democrats will choose between U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is walking away from the high ranking position in U.S. House leadership of Assistant Speaker of the House to run, or Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico’s Secretary of State. Luján has a financial advantage so far and secured endorsements from U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But Toulouse Oliver said she believes New Mexicans care less about what friends in high places think.     

“We have our own local leaders that we look to and we’re very independent-minded,” Toulouse Oliver said.  “While I respect those decisions and respect Congressman Luján for getting that support for himself, I don’t think that it’s going to be even a remotely deciding factor at the end of the day.”  

Pushing the envelope vs. mainstream

Toulouse Oliver didn’t grow up with a high-ranking state legislator as a parent and doesn’t have the institutional knowledge of Congress — two things Luján can boast.

Judge rules non-residents can get medical cannabis cards

Out of state residents who qualify as a medical cannabis patient are now eligible to get a New Mexico medical cannabis card. 

A state district judge ruled Thursday that the New Mexico Department of Health must issue medical cannabis cards to qualified patients, regardless of where they live full-time. Thursday’s hearing was the latest in a back-and-forth between a medical cannabis producer and state officials—including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham—over whether a recent change in law opened the state’s program to non-residents. 

Though the judge ruled that DOH would have to start issuing cards to non-residents, the governor’s office said they aren’t giving up. 

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said the governor’s office plans to appeal the decision, but not before he took a shot at one of the petitioners in the case, Duke Rodriguez, who is an Arizona resident and also the president and CEO of the prominent medical cannabis producer Ultra Health. “We remain of the opinion that New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program should not be bulldozed by an out-of-state litigant operating with his own financial interests at heart rather than those of the state’s medical program or of the many New Mexicans who depend upon it,” Stelnicki said in a statement. “Today’s decision contradicts both the intent of the legislative sponsor and the interpretation of the New Mexico Department of Health, and the state plans to appeal the decision.”

Rodriguez declined to comment on what he called a “personal attack,” but that he’s ultimately happy with the decision    

“There was a lot of good testimonies from both sides today, but I think the judge did a superb job of refining the issues down to one core issue—that if you were to remove the word cannabis from the discussion this becomes an issue of treating it like any other medical care,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez is one of the three petitioners, all of whom reside primarily in other states, who asked the court to compel DOH to issue cards to non-residents. DOH did not officially deny the applications from the three petitioners, but the department placed their applications on hold until they could show a valid New Mexico identification card address. 

David Morgan, a spokesman for DOH, said the department hasn’t determined whether they will start approving applications that come from out of state residents. 

“We are considering how to proceed given the judge’s ruling and the fact that an appeal is forthcoming,” Morgan said. 

If DOH does start issuing cards to non-residents, the next question is whether the state can adequately supply patients with enough cannabis. 

Plant counts for producers has long been an issue, specifically involving Rodriguez and DOH. 

For much of the Medical Cannabis Program’s existence, producers were only allowed to have 450 plants at any given time.

Businesses grow around NM medical cannabis producers

As New Mexico lawmakers try to come up with a legislative proposal to legalize recreational cannabis that might ease the apprehension of some of their colleagues, there is already a group of business owners already laying the groundwork for a post-legalization world. 

Sometimes they’re called ancillary cannabis companies, other times they’re called cannabis adjacent businesses. Regardless of what they’re called, there is a network of New Mexico businesses that provide services to medical cannabis producers. Some of those businesses, which range from real estate to technology companies, have come up with innovative ways to help the medical cannabis industry, prepare for legalized cannabis and even break out into the non-cannabis industry. 

Jeff Holland and Siv Watkins are the partners behind 11Biomics, a company which specializes in protecting cannabis plants from powdery mildew. Holland, who is from Albuquerque, said the business got its start with a business incubator in California’s Bay Area. Despite offers to keep the company on the west coast, the company opted to bring its technology back to New Mexico to help medical cannabis growers and hopefully stimulate the economy. 

“We really want New Mexico to be the leader in this area,” Holland said. 

That area, specifically, is soil treatment to combat harmful plant diseases instead of spraying plants with pesticides.

State agency says political parties can’t hold raffles

A northern New Mexico county political party last week learned they could not raffle off a long-range rifle during a fundraising dinner this fall. But it’s not because of the gun, according to the state department that oversees gambling events like bingo and raffles. 

Earlier this month, an agent with the New Mexico Gaming Control Board told members of the Los Alamos Republican Party they would have to cancel their scheduled raffle and refund all of the ticket sales. On its surface, it may seem that the raffle was cancelled because of the grand prize, but the Gaming Control Board said it’s simply because political parties don’t qualify under state law to have raffles. 

Not a ‘qualified organization’ 

On August 6, Gaming Control Special Agent Robert Zajac told Los Alamos Republican Party Chairman Bill McKerley in an email that the party did not qualify to hold a raffle. 

“Upon a review of the Los Alamos GOP, it does not fall under the definition of a ‘qualified organization,’” Zajac wrote. 

In an email days later, Zajac’s boss, Commander Terry McGaha responded to concerns from the Los Alamos GOP that they did indeed fall into the “qualified organization” category. “Based on state law as a whole, it does not appear that a political organization or a political committee meets the statutory definition for being qualified as a civic or service organization,” McGaha wrote. “Since the Bingo and Raffle act has not included political organizations as a permissible category of nonprofit organizations that are permitted to conduct games of chance under the Bingo and Raffle Act, we must insist that you immediately cease and desist from further sales or activity with respect to the raffle you are currently conducting.”

New Mexico Republican Party Vice-Chair of the 3rd Congressional District Anise Golden-Morper told NM Political Report that the party is still considering their options, and that they hope the issue is just about the raffle, not the rifle. 

“We hope that this is not an attempt to control the citizens to freely purchase a raffle ticket that involves a rifle,” Golden-Morper said.  

Richard Kottenstette, a spokesman for the Gaming Board, said the county party’s giveaway was shut down simply because they’re not qualified to hold a raffle. 

“The gun’s not the issue,” Kottenstette said.

Cannabis working group

Cannabis legalization task force aims for compromise

A group tasked with creating a proposal to legalize cannabis in New Mexico met for the second time to discuss specifics of licensing and regulation as well as how to maintain a medical cannabis program. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Working Group on Marijuana Legalization met for more than five hours on Wednesday and heard from a couple dozen members of the public. 

This is for the naysayers

Pushes for cannabis legalization in the Legislature are nothing new. For years there have been attempts to legalize cannabis by changing the state constitution, as constitutional amendments do not require approval by the governor, and former Gov. Susana Martinez vocally opposed the idea. But the last legislative session showed increased signs of success for proponents. Two different bills, one that pushed for state-run stores and sponsored by Senate Republicans and another without a state-run store provision, saw increased support. 

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a legalization bill in the House and he is now a member of the working group. Martinez said he thinks the group’s “cognitive diversity” will help convince lawmakers who are against legalization, but still open to the idea.  

“I think that out of this process will emerge consensus across the board,” Martinez said.

NM governor intervenes in court case over medical cannabis cards

New Mexico’s governor has officially become a party in a legal battle over whether medical cannabis cards should be issued to out-of-state residents. 

On Wednesday, a state district judge approved Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s request to intervene in the case, which arose after a prominent medical cannabis producer challenged the state on wording in a state statute related to who can become a medical cannabis patient in New Mexico. 

In a motion to add Lujan Grisham as an intervening party, her lawyers argued that the governor’s office is better suited than the state Department of Health to address some issues in the case. 

Related: Cannabis legalization task force aims for compromise

“Public safety considerations such as the interstate transportation of marijuana, which is a violation of federal and state law, and diversion concerns are critical state policy matters,” the court filing read. 

Kenny Vigil, the director of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, was originally named in court documents but Lujan Grisham’s office argued that Vigil cannot adequately represent the state. 

“[Vigil] lacks authority to address law enforcement concerns, approve regulatory action, or direct healthcare policy for our State,” the court filing read. “Thus, the significant public policy considerations interests at issue cannot be fully addressed by the current parties to this litigation and could be substantially affected or impaired.”

While at a task force convened by the governor to examine cannabis legalization, Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel said the issue is too complex for her department alone. 

“It’s such an important matter,” Kunkel said. “What it could impact is significant. It’s beyond the Department of Health.” 

A lawyer with the department told NM Political Report he could not speak for the governor’s office, but did say Lujan Grisham’s office took an interest in the case because it dealt with “interstate issues.”

The court case goes back to an attempt by New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health to encourage those who qualify as a medical cannabis patient but do not live in New Mexico to apply for a medical card. The company’s reasoning was that a law change removed the term “resident of New Mexico” and replaced it with “person” in the definition of “qualified patient.” 

Almost immediately, the Department of Health dismissed the idea that legislators intended to open the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to residents from other states.

Ben Ray Luján aims to connect with voters across the state

On a quiet Saturday morning, just as an early morning rain had stopped and the clouds drifted away, a pile of inflatable rafts sat piled under a tree at La Llorona Park in Las Cruces. Soon, about a dozen teenagers trickled into the park, ready to float about 3 miles down the river with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján. 

Luján’s district is about 300 miles north of the public park, named after a folklore character associated with rivers and children, that butts up against the Rio Grande. Luján wasn’t there on official business, but instead to engage with young people from other parts of the state not within his congressional district as part of his campaign for U.S. Senate. 

Luján’s name is likely familiar to those who even casually follow political news. Earlier this year, he was tapped to become the assistant Speaker of the House, the fourth-highest rank in Democratic leadership. His father, Ben Luján, served as the New Mexico Speaker of the House and many have speculated that if Ben Ray Luján stayed the course in Congress he might be in line to succeed U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.

NM releases settlement info from case against previous administration

A New Mexico department released specifics of legal settlements Tuesday between the Department of Public Safety and some of its former employees. 

The state’s General Services Department released specifics of the settlement agreements for former DPS employees Dianna DeJarnette, Terri Thornberry and former DPS Deputy Secretary Amy Orlando. 

RELATED: State law encourages secret payouts

The records from General Services show DeJarnette and Orlando each received settlements of $300,000, while Thornberry received $400,000. Thom Cole, a spokesman for the General Services, said the release is partially in response to increased interest in a large settlement that was agreed upon by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Cole said the department has been fielding public records requests for specifics of the settlement. But state law requires any claims settled by Risk Management — which is under General Services — have to remain confidential for 180 days and the law is somewhat ambiguous about when that 180 days starts.  

“Rather than have people continue to file [records requests] one after another, after another, trying to hit the right date, we just decided to go ahead and release them,” Cole said. 

The settlements are part of a lawsuit filed by DeJarnette, Thornberry and Orlando alleging employment discrimination and harrasment, specifically by former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. 

Kassetas has been outspoken about the case since KRQE-TV first reported on it. He still maintains that the large settlement amount and the original confidentiality period of three years was at least partially to protect Martinez.

State judge says DOH will have to issue medical cannabis cards to out-of-state residents

A state district court judge on Monday ordered the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to start issuing medical cannabis cards to individuals who qualify, regardless of where they live. 

The question of whether non-residents of New Mexico could become medical cannabis patients started when major changes to the state’s medical cannabis law went into effect. One minor word replacement drastically changed who could become a patient, argued Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health. Before July 2019, the law stated that qualified patients must be a resident of New Mexico. Now, the law defines a qualified patient as a “person.” Rodriguez’s company bought both internet and radio ads promoting the change. But the Department of Health, which oversees the Medical Cannabis Program, along with the governor and at least one legislator, argued the intention of the law was never to open the program up to non-residents. 

Now, barring a compelling argument from DOH, the state could be forced to expand eligibility to anyone from across the country. 

The law is clear

In his ruling Monday morning, Santa Fe district Judge Bryan Biedscheid wrote that the law is clear.