February 9, 2020

Senate passes public records bill, chides Martinez administration

Joe Gratz

Flickr/cc

The New Mexico Senate unanimously passed a bill Saturday that would allow the public to immediately view records pertaining to claims against the government, as legislators admonished financial settlements made under the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez.

Senate Bill 64, sponsored by Sen. Sander Rue and three other lawmakers, would remove a requirement that the state must wait 180 days before publicly disclosing information about such settlements. It would also eliminate criminal penalties for revealing confidential records related to these types of claims. The bill now moves to the House.

Lawmakers said they were compelled to introduce the bill after millions of dollars in secretive settlements were made during the Martinez administration, many of which were found to have been carried out without adequate investigation or documentation. During debate on Saturday, senators had harsh words for officials from that administration and the attorneys involved, saying they allowed corruption to continue unchecked in New Mexico.

“We should be outraged,” Sen. Joseph Cervantes told the chamber, noting that the settlements were made with taxpayer money. “I thought I’d seen every kind of fraud available to politicians until I saw this one.”

A series of settlements were reached in late 2018, the final days of the Martinez administration, to dispose of sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints against former state police Chief Pete Kassetas.

But under current law, the General Services Department had to wait 180 days before releasing information pertaining to those settlements. The bill passed Saturday by the Senate would erase that required delay.

In August, for instance, that department released documents showing three former Department of Public Safety employees received a total of $1 million after alleging they were sexually harassed or were victims of sexual discrimination.

State Auditor Brian Colón said in November that a special audit of settlements made while Martinez was in office revealed abuse of power to help political appointees and possible violations of state law.

Auditors looked at 18 settlements totaling more than $5 million between 2015 and 2019. Of those, the audit revealed more than $2.7 million was paid in cases in which there was a lack of documentation for the settlements. And cases involving more than $2.1 million in payouts had confidentiality clauses exceeding the six-month maximum allowed by law.

“When audits were done and people went back and looked at this, it was pretty apparent that mischief played with the processes and with taxpayer dollars,” Rue, R-Albuquerque, told The New Mexican.

Colón has said his office referred audit documents for review to the District Attorney’s Office in Santa Fe and the office of state Attorney General Hector Balderas.

The state’s newly created ethics commission cannot investigate the settlements because it’s not allowed to investigate complaints of incidents that occurred before July 2019.

Senators said during floor debate on Saturday that they couldn’t understand why prosecutors had not yet held those involved accountable more than one year after the settlements occurred.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said he hoped there could be restitution for taxpayers. He also asked Rue to share the names of the contract lawyers involved in the settlements. Rue responded that he would look into posting a list of names online.

Later in the debate, Cervantes called Wirth’s question “a tease,” saying, “We know who the law firms are. Let’s say who they are.”

“Attorney general, why don’t you connect the dots?” he then asked. “District attorneys, why don’t you connect the dots?”

The bill passed by the Senate doesn’t include any provision requiring that the settlements be posted on the state Sunshine Portal. However, General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz noted that his agency has implemented a policy of posting settlement documents there.

Ortiz said after the vote that he believed the bill, if passed, could restore some trust in state government.

“The public has a right to know how we do business and how their tax dollars are spent,” Ortiz told reporters. “With the passage of this bill, once it’s signed into law, they would be able to immediately view documents within the settlement.”