February 4, 2020

Bill to eliminate settlement confidentiality period stalled indefinitely

Joe Gratz

Flickr/cc

Legislation aimed at eliminating a six month confidentiality period after legal settlements with the state stalled indefinitely in a Senate committee, pending changes suggested by some members. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee decided on Monday to postpone SB 64, sponsored by Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque and Democratic Sen. Linda Trujillo until more changes to the bill are made. 

Committee Chair Joseph Cervantes said he is trying to avoid making changes in committee and suggested the sponsors take some of the recommended changes into consideration and bring it back to the committee. Concerns from other members ranged from a lack of penalties for releasing information before a settlement is made official to unclear language about when a claim with the state is considered settled. 

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, bluntly told the bills sponsors, along with General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz, that the bill was unclear.

“Frankly, I think you’re so far in the weeds you’re not clear,” Ivey-Soto said. 

Ivey-Soto’s suggestion was that the sponsors completely strike the section of law that currently requires a confidentiality period and start from scratch. 

Just before Rue presented his bill, State Auditor Brian Colón presented a summary of his office’s findings related to 18 settlements made in the final weeks of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s time in office. Late last year Colón’s office conducted an audit of those settlements and found “abuse of power” and wrongdoing by the Martinez administration. 

The Martinez settlements’ three year confidentiality period went well beyond 180 days. Some committee members said they were concerned that Rue and Trujillo’s bill did not do enough to prevent a confidentiality period being written into the terms of a settlement. 

Regardless of Cervantes’ hesitation to pass the bill along as-is, he said he was frustrated with the revelations of the Martinez settlements. During his presentation, Colón said both the settlements and a state law that requires secrecy didn’t pass his “smell test.” 

Cerventes took the analogy a step further. 

“This is more like the dead skunk in the middle of the road test,” Cervantes said. 

The law currently requires that all settlements made with the state Risk Management Division remain confidential for six months. When that six-month period begins is somewhat ambiguous.

There are currently four triggers to start the six-month clock: When the claim is put into closed status by Risk Management, when the claim is settled, when all appeals or rights to appeal have been exhausted or when the statute of limitations runs out. The law states the latest of the four possible events triggers the confidentiality period.  

Rue and Trujillo’s bill would pare those events down to three and the confidentiality period would trigger when the first of those events happens, not the last. 

Last year, for example, the Risk Management Division told NM Political Report the confidentiality period for settlements made with the Corrections Department did not begin until the state paid its contract legal counsel, which happened months after the settlements were finalized. 

Ortiz told the committee on Monday that his office found that many claims were not closed simply because staffers failed to indicate so in the state’s computer system. 

The future of SB 64 is still unclear. Rue did not respond to requests for comment.