State law encourages secret payouts

Before Cynthia Herald left the Bernalillo County courthouse last November she told reporters that she was relieved to finally gain closure on an ordeal with the University of New Mexico that lasted more than half a decade. Herald sued the university’s medical school, claiming she was wrongfully dismissed from a residency program and settled before closing arguments. The terms of the settlement were, by state law, temporarily shielded from public scrutiny. That meant the public couldn’t see the total amount UNM agreed to pay, including how much money was to come from the medical school’s anesthesiology department and how much from the state’s Risk Management Division. Seven months later, the University still won’t release that information and cites the same law.

Lawsuit: AG violated open records law

An Alamogordo resident filed an open records lawsuit against the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General Friday, alleging the office illegally redacted portions of legal invoices related to a U.S. Supreme Court case. Open records activist Wendy Irby filed the suit after she received significantly-redacted billing records for a contract between the Attorney General’s office and an Albuquerque law firm well-known in the state legal world for government contracts. According to court records, Irby asked the AG’s office for billing information from Robles, Rael and Anaya P.C. related to Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, a case about the states’ water use and sharing. The private law firm argued the case on behalf of the AG’s office. Irby’s lawsuit says Attorney General Hector Balderas and his records custodian violated the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) by blacking out billing specifics from Robles Rael & Anaya.

Judge: Guv’s office ignoring open records request violated law, but ignoring questions didn’t

A New Mexico district judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Susana Martinez’s office violated the state’s public records law, but did not break the law when ignoring or refusing interview requests with a Santa Fe newspaper. The Santa Fe Reporter was first to report on the decision from Santa Fe Pro Tem District Judge Sarah Singleton. Singleton ruled that the governor’s office violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) three times by failing to respond or responding late to public records requests. But, Singleton ruled that the governor and her staff did not violate the U.S. Constitution by refusing to speak to or answer questions from Reporter staffers. She not only said existing case law does not support the paper’s arguments, but that the paper’s questions aimed at the governor’s office “were not comparable to the mundane requests made by other newspaper.”

“The Reporter was requesting special treatment,” Singleton wrote.

State faces new open records suit over pay to guv’s favored attorney

A lawsuit filed Thursday afternoon in Santa Fe District Court aims to uncover how much New Mexico taxpayers shelled out for a private attorney to represent Gov. Susana Martinez’s office in a number of court cases. Journalist Jeff Proctor* filed the lawsuit against the state’s General Services Department (GSD) for not releasing attorney Paul Kennedy’s invoices for his public work, claiming the department failed to comply with the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). The suit calls for the state to release specific invoices and bills that show how much the state has paid Kennedy to represent Martinez as contract counsel in several cases. In addition to retaining Kennedy, Martinez also has access to four state employed legal staff, whose combined salaries total $341,850. The lawsuit states by not releasing Kennedy’s billing records GSD not only violated the open records law, “but also offend the spirit and intent of the law governing matters of public concern.”

That spirit of the law, said Proctor’s lawyer Frank Davis, “is to make sure we have an informed electorate.”

“We need to know where dollars are being spent,” Davis said.

APS faces public records suit from mother of student

More than a year after Albuquerque Public Schools denied her public records requests related to an incident involving her autistic son, Laura Gutierrez is taking the state’s biggest public school district to court. Her lawsuit, filed last month in Albuquerque’s state district court, alleges APS wrongly withheld public records responsive to requests she made in late 2015. She is asking for the school district to release the records and pay damages for violating the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). Under IPRA, public agencies can be fined up to $100 per day in damages for not fulfilling public records requests if the person who brings the suit can prove damages. “I have decisions I need to make as a parent, and without these records I can’t move forward,” Gutierrez said in an interview.

Martinez vetoes bill on access to public databases for ‘political’ purposes

Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed two bills and signed two more Friday afternoon. One bill Martinez vetoed dealt with the release of public databases through the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). Rep. Matthew McQueen introduced the bill after reading about problems one citizen had when requesting information from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commision. That issue was reported by NM Political Report and co-published in the Santa Fe Reporter. Currently, IPRA allows agencies to release databases but also authorizes agency officials to make the requester agree “not to use the database for any political or commercial purpose unless the purposes and use is approved in writing by the state agency that created the database.” McQueen’s bill would have struck “political” from the law.

ISC ‘wins’ Black Hole Award for lack of openness

The Society of Professional Journalists gave the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission the dubious honor of its sixth annual Black Hole Award, which goes to “government institutions or agencies for outright contempt of the public’s right to know.”

The nomination came from NM Political Report reporter Laura Paskus, who has reported on the agency for years. “Making these sorts of heavy decisions and citing data to back those decisions but refusing to produce this data is ridiculous. Agencies should be transparent in their effects on publicly owned bodies, land or water” Gideon Grudo, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, said. “They certainly shouldn’t be this aggressive to the press, either. Hats off to Laura Paskus for being persistent.”

Related: Effort to make college research secret stalls over fears it goes too far

From the SPJ announcement:
“The agency has been sued for Open Meetings Act violations, gives me plenty of hassles about releasing public documents, and for years now, has refused to answer my questions.

Senate OKs bill on redacting names from police reports

The state Senate approved a bill Monday that would allow government agencies to redact the names of victims and most witnesses from police reports of rape, stalking and domestic violence until a defendant has been charged. Senate Bill 149 would amend the state’s public records law to add this exception. Senators voted 40-0 for the measure, which next goes to the House of Representatives. The sponsor, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, said the bill would “extend the same protections and dignity to victims of rape and intimate partner violence as the law currently provides to their rapists.” New Mexico’s public records law already prohibits government agencies from releasing the names of people who are suspected of a crime but have not been charged.

Effort to make college research secret stalls over fears it goes too far

Angelo Artuso warns that a move by lawmakers to shield some university research from the public eye could lead to harrowing consequences. At a Wednesday morning House committee hearing, Artuso invoked some of history’s darkest state-sanctioned university research projects. For decades, researchers at Tuskegee University studied the effects of syphilis by pretending to offer infected Black men free health care. And several colleges and universities from the early 1950s until 1973 were involved in Project MKUltra, a CIA program that used drugs like LSD unknowingly on human subjects to experiment with mind control. Programs like those, involving government-funded atrocities at institutions of higher learning,  Artuso maintained, would remain hidden at New Mexico public higher education institutions under a bill sponsored by state Reps.

State Sen. wants parents to have access to investigations into school police

Laura Gutierrez has been trying to get public records from Albuquerque Public Schools for more than a year. In 2014 a school law enforcement officer allegedly used force against her autistic son. APS opened an investigation and soon cleared the officer of any wrongdoing. Gutierrez wants to see all the documents from this investigation. In the fall and winter of 2015, Gutierrez filed four public records requests with APS for the district’s internal investigation of the officer, an employee of the school district.