State to audit $1.7 million of settlements from late in the Martinez administration

Days after a local news report on $1.7 million worth of court settlements, paid by the former Gov. Susana Martinez administration to about a half dozen former state employees, one state official said his office will conduct an audit. Since the story broke earlier this month, New Mexico’s State Auditor announced an official audit to examine how and why the legal settlements were made confidential for years instead of the statutory deadline which outlines six months. Meanwhile, lawyers for some of those employees want a local television station to remove their story on the issue from its website.  

State Auditor Brian Colón announced Tuesday morning that his office will conduct a special audit on the settlements between the state and a half dozen former state employees who claimed they were targets of harassment and retaliation from former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. “I’m concerned by the lack of transparency, the extreme length of confidentiality of the settlement terms, and the timing of these settlements, Colón said in a statement.

NM GOP calls out former administration for secret payouts

New Mexico’s Republican Party condemned the Gov. Susana Martinez administration Thursday for reportedly paying out $1.7 million in confidential settlements to former state officials. “We are deeply troubled by the recent breaking news about secret payouts to state employees that appear to have violated state procedures which are supposed to protect taxpayers from paying out frivolous claims,” a press release from the party said. The party’s announcement came after KRQE-TV reported that not only did the state settle with a handful of former state employees, but that the specifics of the settlement are confidential for almost five years. Normally, New Mexico statute requires all settlements that go through the state’s Risk Management Division be kept confidential for 180 days. It’s still unclear why both the former state employees and Risk Management agreed to an unusually long confidentiality period.

New Mexico readies for driverless vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are coming. Soon—and New Mexico needs to be ready. That was the message from a recent summit on autonomous, or driverless, vehicles organized by the state Department of Transportation. Local officials, technology experts and even industry representatives all agreed legislators need to understand the technology before changing laws or other policies. Earlier this year, Sen. James White, R-Albuquerque, introduced a memorial asking NMDOT to organize the summit and get New Mexico ready for autonomous vehicles.

Senators, Pearce put forward candidates for U.S. Attorney, Marshal

New Mexico’s U.S. senators and lone Republican member of the congressional delegation submitted names for New Mexico’s next U.S. Marshal and U.S. Attorney. U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce sent the letters to President Trump and copies to the chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The positions are subject to Senate approval. The U.S. Attorney position has been vacant for two months since the resignation of Damon Martinez. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked for the resignation of all U.S. Attorneys at that time, a standard practice at the start of a new presidential administration.

House panel passes bill to return cops to work

A bill to allow retired cops to return to their police departments across the state passed its first House committee, a marked difference from last year when it died quickly. The measure passed the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee on partisan lines, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting against. Sponsored by Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, this time the bill doesn’t hurt the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico fund. Or at least that’s the promise the veteran legislator made. Albuquerque City Attorney Jessica Hernandez testified that former cops who decide to return to work won’t be able to add to their pensions, but would still have to contribute to the PERA fund.

Legislators told about NM’s high violent crime rate

New Mexico is the fourth worst state in America for violent crimes. Or maybe it’s the second. Both rankings were cited in testimony from Department of Public Safety Greg Fouratt in a Monday afternoon interim legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee hearing. The two numbers come from interpretations of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which measures eight different types of crimes in states on a yearly basis. The website 24/7 Wall St., for example, ranked New Mexico with the fourth-most violent crime per 100,000 based on 2012 data and second-most violent based on 2013 data.

Two bombs set off at Las Cruces churches

Two explosives went off at Las Cruces churches on Sunday, prompting evacuations and cancellations of services. No one was injured and the damage to property was described as minor. Still, the explosions prompted investigations from both local police and federal investigators. The explosions took place at Holy Cross Catholic Church and Calvary Baptist Church, just minutes apart. Calvary Baptist Church wrote a statement on Facebook.

New calls to return fugitive as US-Cuba relations improve

With relations between Cuba and the United States reaching a level not seen for decades, the calls for Cuba to return a fugitive who fled after the killing of a New Mexico State Police officer in the 1970s are growing louder. The latest call came from current New Mexico State Police chief Pete Kassetas. Kassetas told the Associated Press that he is cautiously optimistic that the extradition will happen. Kassetas also joked that he would pay for the ticket himself. Chief Pete Kassetas said his agency is working with the FBI on the possible return of Charlie Hill to face charges after the U.S. and Cuba restored formal diplomatic relations.

Driver’s licenses repeal heads to House floor

Sharp partisan lines were drawn yet again during further passage of a bill proposing to do away with the state law that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. The House Judiciary Committee’s Republican majority voted 7 to 6 in favor of sending HB 32 on for a House floor vote following five hours of debate that frequently circled back to the controversial federal REAL ID Act. A measure sponsored by Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, also proposes to not allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. It was held over until the next committee meeting. Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, helped craft the House Judiciary Committee’s early-morning substitution for HB 32.