April 1, 2017

Gov’s office cites complex questions from reporters, busy schedule as defense in lawsuit

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.

Martinez’s former Communications Director Enrique Knell, who currently directs boards and commissions at the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department, attributed the office’s lack of response to inquiries from the Santa Fe Reporter to scarce resources and busy schedules.

Knell said if he wasn’t busy assisting the governor with the legislative matters, then he was busy accompanying the governor to wildfires around the state. Knell testified his job was not to cater to media outlets, but to deliver specific messages the governor wanted to disseminate to the public. In one instance Knell recalled a 2013 fire in the Pecos Wilderness. Knell said he accompanied Martinez to the area in order to help get her message out.

“I was there to accommodate the governor,” Knell said in response to Kennedy’s question about whether he was there to accommodate news media.

Knell said 2013 was a particularly busy year for him personally, citing shared custody of his children, a commute from Albuquerque and a lack of support staff in the communications office.

Santa Fe Reporter attorney Daniel Yohalem contrasted a long list of emails from Knell to other media outlets—including seemingly unsolicited statements from the governor’s office—to a list of unanswered media requests from the Santa Fe Reporter. Knell later testified reporters from other media outlets visited him personally when requesting information and said it was possible the seemingly unsolicited emails were a result of previous in-person conversations.

Kennedy also tried to show that the Santa Fe Reporter overburdened the governor’s office with records requests and asked Knell to compare the alt-weekly’s requests with those from other media outlets.

At one point Kennedy asked Knell, “When you got these emails from the Santa Fe Reporter, were they one or two sentences?”

“No, they were pretty long,” Knell replied.

Kennedy repeatedly showed witnesses a list of public records requests from various media outlets. The Santa Fe Reporter was at the top of the list with 23 requests in 2013. The non-profit news outlet New Mexico In Depth was second on the list with six requests.

Former legal assistant and records custodian for Martinez’s office Pamela Cason testified her daily duties made it difficult to respond in a timely manner to public records requests.

“It was a struggle,” Cason said of balancing her daily duties with responding to the Santa Fe Reporter’s requests.

Other witnesses included current Communications Director Chris Sanchez, Chief of Staff Keith Gardner and former Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director Scott Darnell.

Darnell, who is now a City of Albuquerque contractor, summed up at least one of the duties of Martinez staffers.

“You are attempting to provide the governor’s point of view wherever possible and as often as possible,” Darnell said.

It’s unclear when District Judge Sarah Singleton will issue a ruling.

Note: NM Political Report senior reporter Joey Peters worked at the Santa Fe Reporter when the newspaper filed the lawsuit and testified on the first day of the trial. Peters was not involved in the editing process of this story.

Correction: This story originally said lawyers will file their closing arguments in writing next week. They will file their closing arguments in writing three weeks after the transcript is available.