May 2, 2016

Editor’s choice: Top ten stories of April

April was another very busy month for NM Political Report. The month included so many big stories, that I decided to count down the top ten stories.

I based the top ten list on a variety of factors: a blend of views, Facebook discussions (our page reached 9,000 likes as April came to an end) and just overall relevance.

Without further ado, here are the top ten stories of the month:

10. Michelle Obama, Joe Biden headed to NM

These were actually two stories. One was news that First Lady Michelle Obama would be traveling to New Mexico in May to give the commencement speech at Santa Fe Indian School. It will be the first trip by Obama to New Mexico in years and one of her final commencement speeches as First Lady.

The very next day, we received news that Vice President Joe Biden would stop by a gathering of congressional delegates in Santa Fe. Biden wasn’t the only high profile Democrat to join the gathering put on by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was also in attendance.

9. ABQ Brew Pub faces minimum wage suit

This one came late in the month—on the final day.

The story came that employees and former employees were suing Kelly’s Brew Pub in Albuquerque for minimum wage violations. The brewery and restaurant allegedly required employees to submit up to six percent of their tips each night to make up for the costs of Albuquerque’s new minimum wage.

8. GOP chair started anti-transgender rights effort at APS

A proposed change on a directive involving transgender students at Albuquerque Public Schools caused a big outcry and multiple public comments in front of the school board even though the board didn’t have any say on the issue.

It turns out that the effort mainly came from the chairman of the Republican Party of Bernalillo County. Many who sent in emails protesting the decision copied and pasted his language opposing any change to the directive.

7. Local TV station cracks down on stories involving advertisers

KRQE-TV’s news director emailed reporters informing them that any story involving “clients” needed to go through the news director first. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the timing came shortly after the station spiked a story potentially critical of an advertiser.

The reporter on the initial story found themselves out of a story involving a major Albuquerque auto dealer and a dispute with a military veteran’s group over rent.

The email raised questions over the separation between the editorial and business sides of KRQE.

6. Regent behind HSC takeover deleted all emails

The biggest story of March was likely the takeover of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center by the Board of Regents. The story spilled into April after New Mexico In Depth reported that the regent who was the driving force behind the takeover deleted all his emails. The deletion raised questions according to one leading open government advocate.

Rob Doughty, the regent in question, has extensive political ties to the Susana Martinez administration and Republicans throughout the state.

5. Martinez kept unused party cash

Remember the infamous holiday party that ended with audio of an allegedly inebriated Gov. Susana Martinez speaking to police over the phone?

It was paid for by a contingency fund that is for entertainment expenses, such as hosting officials and having events for staff, such as that party.

The governor was supposed to roll all unused money over to the state general fund at the end of each year. However, her office did not revert the funds according to an audit.

The account itself is exempt from the state law requiring audits to nearly all other government funds, from state agencies to local governments.

4. FBI spy planes flew over Albuquerque

Buzzfeed found that spy planes from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security flew over American cities. It’s not clear why the planes were flying over the cities or what they were looking for, but many were outfitted with sophisticated noise-dampening mufflers and high resolution cameras.

New Mexico was not exempted from these flights.

FBI planes circled over Albuquerque and DHS planes flew near the border from mid-August to December of 2015.

Some of the planes included equipment for tracking cell phones, though it isn’t clear if those planes circled the Duke City.

3. Gary Johnson profile

For the third election cycle in a row, New Mexico has a former governor running for president. As with last year, this time it is Gary Johnson.

We wrote a deep dive into Johnson’s past, starting from when he ran for office as a political newcomer to his two terms as governor and finally to his role as a Libertarian Party candidate and one of three frontrunners for the party’s 2016 nomination.

The profile includes not just Johnson, but a number of politicos, pundits and more who reflect on the iconoclastic governor.

2. AG clears final behavioral health providers

One of the bigger stories of the past few years was when the state Human Services Department cut off Medicaid funding for 15 behavioral health providers. The state cited “credible allegations of fraud” for the funding freeze.

This took place three years ago, and early in April, Attorney General Hector Balderas cleared the final two behavioral health providers of the allegations of fraud.

The state, however, still hasn’t restored the funding. The state says that the organizations still have overbilling and so will remain on the outs.

1. Employees say HSD asked them to falsify SNAP applications

Several Human Services Department employees alleged that higher-ups in the department asked them to falsify food benefits applications. The applications in question were those that would qualify for expedited, or emergency, SNAP benefits. By adding funds, the applicants would no longer qualify for the expedited benefits.

HSD denied the allegations and instead pointed fingers at those who made the allegations, saying the benefits applications in question had problems.

The testimony came as part of a federal court case where the Center on Law and Poverty is asking a federal judge to appoint someone to oversee portions of HSD’s administration, including the parts that deal with benefits.

This testimony led to both an internal investigation and an investigation by the State Auditor into the allegations.