Next month marks the beginning of Gov. Susana Martinez’s last year in office. This year, though, was peppered with lawsuits against either Martinez’s office or state departments under her appointees. At least two of the three major suits will spill over to 2018, bookending Martinez’s tenure as governor. See all of our year-end stories
A lawsuit against the New Mexico Public Education Department for allegedly underfunding the state’s schools received significant media attention in 2017. The case goes back several years and consolidated three similar cases.
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.
Lawyers for the Santa Fe Reporter and Gov. Susana Martinez have submitted written closing arguments in a long-running court battle over public information and records. The Reporter sued Martinez in 2013, alleging she and her staff discriminated against the paper by refusing to communicate with its journalists and violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) by refusing to turn over records related to pardons, her schedule and other public business. The paper’s attorneys argued that the stonewalling began, ironically enough, after publication of a cover story critical of the administration’s lack of transparency. The unusual case has received wide attention, including from numerous state and local news organizations and from the Columbia Journalism Review. A victory for the newspaper could set new transparency standards for New Mexico state government; a win for the governor would mean some vindication for an elected official who has touted hers as “the most transparent administration in state history.”
A three-day bench trial in the courtroom of state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe concluded in April, setting the stage for both sides’ lawyers to sum up their cases in writing.
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.
The New Mexico Supreme Court denied the Legislature’s lawsuit against Gov. Susana Martinez for her line-item budget vetoes, saying that the case is “not ripe for review.”
Their denial was announced Thursday morning, a day after the Legislature filed its response to the governor’s filing. All five members of the Supreme Court concurred with the order. Now, legislators and the governor will have to battle over the vetoes in a special legislative session, which Martinez called to begin on May 24. Note: This is a breaking news story and more information will be added as it comes in. The Legislature sued over line-item vetoes of the entire legislative and higher education budgets.
Attorneys for the Legislative Council Service urged the state Supreme Court to reject Gov. Susana Martinez’s large line-item vetoes in the state budgets in a Wednesday court filing. In the latest legal argument from LCS involving its lawsuit against Martinez, a response to arguments submitted last week from her legal camp, attorneys Jane Yohalem and Michael Browde argued that Martinez’s vetoes last month violate the state constitution. Specifically, the argued that a provision that bars the governor from re-writing the annual bill the Legislature passes to fund state government. Martinez vetoed the entire budgets for the state Legislature and the state Higher Education Department. The large vetoes, the attorneys added, violate the separation of powers between the Legislature and governor established in the state constitution.
Attorneys for Gov. Susana Martinez argued to the New Mexico Supreme Court that a legal challenge of her sweeping line-item budget vetoes should be dismissed. At a minimum, her lawyers argued last week, the case should be postponed until an upcoming special legislative session is complete. In response to a motion filed by the Legislative Council last month, Martinez’s lawyer Paul Kennedy argued that the governor did not exceed her power as governor when she vetoed the entire budgets for the Legislature and higher education. Kennedy, who has a high dollar contract with Martinez’s office, challenged the Legislature’s notion that the governor cannot legally veto two entire budgets. Related story: Gov’s office cites complex questions from reporters, busy schedule as defense in lawsuit
“The question presented is whether, during the bill-review period following a regular session of the Legislature, the Governor can veto items pertaining to the Legislature and state educational institutions in a general appropriations bill for the subsequent fiscal year without violating the principle of separation of powers,” Kennedy wrote.
Testimony in the trial between the Santa Fe Reporter and the office of Gov. Susana Martinez ended Friday afternoon. Lawyers on both sides will file closing arguments in writing three weeks after the official court transcript is available. The Santa Fe Reporter filed the suit in 2013 arguing Martinez’s the governor’s office violated state public records laws and actively discriminated against the paper after it published unflattering coverage of the governor. During the three-day bench trial, testimony from former and current Martinez staffers offered a rare glimpse into how the governor’s staff handles media inquires and how they prioritize her agenda and her messages to the public. Throughout the trial, the governor’s contract lawyer Paul Kennedy tried to paint the picture of a busy governor’s office with overworked staff and not enough resources to adequately comply with state law and respond to every media request.
LAS CRUCES — The cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department testified Wednesday that he didn’t know of allegations of widespread fraud in the processing of food benefits applications within his department until they first became public in April. Nine employees previously testified in federal court in April and May about HSD’s practice of adding fake assets to emergency applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. “I would never tolerate that or direct that,” Earnest said. Related: After deadline, HSD report on alleged SNAP fraud still not finished
Earnest and his attorneys emphasized that HSD took immediate action end to put an end to the practice by sending a directive to employees reminding them to follow federal law and initiating an internal investigation of the matter. The remarks are Earnest’s first public comments about when he first found out about the alleged practices that have rocked his department for the past two months.
After damning food stamp fraud allegations surfaced in federal court in April, the state brought on a high-profile Albuquerque law firm. A later court hearing earlier this month marked the first time that Paul Kennedy, a former State Supreme Court justice and frequent lawyer for Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, made a formal entrance in the decades-old Deborah Hatten-Gonzales v. Human Services Department lawsuit. Kennedy made a formal entrance into the Hatten-Gonzales case on May 12. Daniel Yohalem* is an attorney representing part of the Center on Law and Poverty’s legal team who has been working on the Hatten-Gonzales case since 1996. The May 13 court hearing was the first time Yohalem said he’d ever seen Kennedy on the case. Originally filed in 1988, the Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit alleged that the state was mishandling its processing of applicants seeking benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, and Medicaid.