December 29, 2017

2017 Top Stories #1: Guv’s office faces lawsuits

Andy Lyman

Gov. Susana Martinez delivering the 2017 State of the State Address.

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. The suit against PED finally went to trial in front of state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton in July. Plaintiffs in the case, which included New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, argued that failing schools around the state are a result of inadequate funding by the state. PED officials argued  that school performances are not indicative of funding.

Singleton is expected to issue a ruling next year after each side submits written closing arguments. Singleton retired last year but agreed to stay on the PED case as a pro tem judge.

Singleton agreed to stay on as a judge in another case against the Martinez administration, this one against the governor’s executive staff.

In 2013, the Santa Fe Reporter, an alt-weekly newspaper based in the state capital, filed a lawsuit against Martinez for allegedly shutting out the paper for interviews and violating the state Inspection of Public Records Act. The Reporter suit went to trial for three days in March, with the governor’s former  office staffers and former and current journalists from the paper testifying.

Singleton asked lawyers in the case to submit closing statements and rebuttals in writing, which effectively dragged the case on for months.

This month, Singleton ruled in favor of Martinez in terms of granting access to preferred news outlets, but in favor of the Reporter for IPRA violations. Either side can appeal Singleton’s ruling, but must notify the court of their intentions by December 28. If either side decides to appeal, the case will roll over to the new year. Albuquerque attorney Paul Kennedy served as contract counsel for Martinez in the case, but is also in the center of another lawsuit against a state agency.

In June, weeks before Kennedy submitted his closing argument in the Reporter case, journalist Jeff Proctor filed a lawsuit against the state General Services Department for allegedly violating IPRA. Proctor originally sought payment and billing records for the legal work Kennedy did for Martinez. According to Proctor’s previous reporting, Kennedy was awarded legal contracts for at least $700,000 in public money, although at least one record Proctor found showed contracts amounting to more than $800,000. In his suit, Proctor’s lawyers argued GSD should have turned over the specifics of Kennedy’s billings as it’s ultimately taxpayers’ money.

Lawyers hired by GSD argued the specific billing documents are protected as attorney-client privilege and therefore not subject to IPRA. According to court records, there has been at least one meeting between lawyers for each side and state District Judge Raymond Ortiz has mandated a mediation before a trial takes place sometime next summer or fall.