November 19, 2019

State Auditor: Secret payouts were ‘about abuse of power’

In a press conference Monday, New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón announced his office’s findings regarding multiple secret payouts approved by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Colón said he was “disappointed” and “disgusted” with the way the Martinez administration handled 18 confidential legal settlements totalling $5 million in taxpayer money. The payouts were in response to a lawsuit filed against Martinez and her former chief of police, alleging workplace harrasment and discrimination.   

“This is about abuse of power, a lack of transparency, and particularly as it relates to political appointees by our former governor,” Colón said. 

The Martinez administration finalized the settlements in question just before she left office and approved by a cabinet secretary she appointed. News stories about the settlement highlighted not only a mysterious audio recording that reportedly contained a conversation between Martinez and her husband, but also an unusually long confidentiality period

But state law still allows settlements like these to remain confidential for 180 days. Colón said he’d like to see a change in that law. 

“I look forward to standing at the Legislature and explaining to them if we’re going to restore people’s trust in government, we have to change the confidentiality agreement, period,” Colón said.    

Colón is not the first official to call for a revamp of the state’s confidentiality law for legal settlements. General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz previously told NM Political Report that he also wants the Legislature to take another look at the law. 

GSD oversees the state’s Risk Management Division, which is the division in charge of administering legal settlements. In a statement just after Colón’s press conference, Ortiz said his office is already working with lawmakers. 

“We are working with the Governor’s Office, state legislators and others on possible changes to the provisions in state law related to temporary confidentiality for Risk Management Division records and settlements,” Ortiz said. 

But most of Colón’s press conference was devoted to the specific settlements from the end of the Martinez administration. He said he sent his office’s findings to the state Attorney General Hector Balderas. A spokesman for Balderas said the AG’s office received the findings and will review them. 

“The Office of the Attorney General has received the auditor’s findings and will work with the Ethics Commission and local prosecutors to ensure appropriate jurisdictional action is taken in this matter,” AG spokesman Matt Baca said.