April 25, 2017

Legislature’s attorney withdraws from veto case over ‘perceived conflict of interest’

The Legislative Council’s attorney in the lawsuit against Gov. Susana Martinez is stepping down from the case, just a day after the state Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments on the case.

The case is challenging Martinez’s line-item vetoes to a state budget passed last month by the state Legislature.

Late Monday, Thomas Hnasko filed a motion to withdraw from the case, which lists Martinez and Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Duffy Rodriguez as defendants.

Hnasko is recusing himself because of a “perceived conflict of interest” and a request from the Risk Management Division of the state General Services Department.

The motion says other attorneys at Hnasko’s firm, Hinkle Shanor LLP, “have been retained by [Risk Management] to defend designated state entities and employees against monetary damage and equitable claims asserted against those entities and employees.”

In a joint statement, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said they believed there was no conflict.

“We believe that our decision to retain Mr. Hnasko to represent the Legislature did not create a conflict, but we are not objecting to his motion to withdraw because we do not want Governor Martinez’ administration to succeed in delaying the court’s action on these unconstitutional vetoes,” the legislative leaders said. “The Governor’s administration has clearly interfered with the Legislature’s choice of counsel; however, this will not deter our efforts to restore funding for higher education and an entire branch of government.”

Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez said in a statement, “Of course there’s a conflict of interest – which is why they’re withdrawing.”

Michael B. Browde, the motion says, will remain as counsel on the case for the Legislative Council.

The Legislative Council voted, behind closed doors and without revealing how members voted, earlier this month to sue Martinez over vetoes of the entire budget for the Legislature and the entire budget for higher education.

Martinez said the vetoes were necessary to balance the budget, as required by the state constitution, and that legislators and the governor could fix the funding holes during a special session. She has not indicated the date for a special session yet.

The Legislative Council also voted to allow the panel’s director to begin collecting signatures on a petition for a possible extraordinary session to address the budget situation. For an extraordinary session, three-fifths of the members of each legislative chamber must sign on.

Update: Added a statement from a Martinez spokesman.