September 3, 2020

MLK Jr Commission, foundation facing public records suit

Joe Gratz

Flickr/cc

A former employee at a state commission filed a lawsuit Monday against the board’s executive director, alleging that he and the organization are illegally withholding financial information. 

Erica Davis Crump, the former associate director of the New Mexico Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, filed the suit against her former boss, Leonard Waites, the commission and an organization called MLK Jr Foundation of NM. Davis Crump’s lawsuit claims that Waites and the commission violated the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) when they did not fulfill a request to disclose information about the foundation. 

Davis Crump’s attorney, Jacob Candelaria, who also serves in the state senate, told NM Political Report that the initial records request he filed on behalf of his client was part of a separate, whistleblower lawsuit against Waites that Candelaria plans to file later this week.  

At issue in the current case is whether the foundation’s aim is “to serve as the fundraising arm of the MLK Commission” as state records show, or if it’s a completely separate entity.

Waites did not respond to a request for comment and court records show that he had not been served with the suit as of Tuesday. 

But in a letter to Candelaria regarding the records request, Waites wrote that the foundation is not associated with the commission and that the purpose of the foundation was to raise money to help “fund programs that support the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“The Foundation is a non-profit corporation, and its officers and directors are private citizens, with no ties to the Commission,” Waites wrote. 

Candelaria included as an exhibit in the suit the foundation’s registration with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office that states the foundation is the fundraising arm of the commission. 

“They can say whatever they want now, after the fact, but look at what they actually disclosed to the Secretary of State as being the purpose of the foundation,” Candelaria said on Tuesday. 

In 2018, independent journalist Daniel Libit sued the UNM Foundation, a fundraising group for the University of New Mexico, because the foundation claimed it was exempt from IPRA. A state district judge ruled in favor of Libit on the grounds that the foundation was doing work on behalf of a public body. 

Candelaria said he’s hopeful the judge in this case will agree. 

“The foundation status as a nonprofit corporation, in and of itself, does not mean it’s not subject to IPRA,” Candelaria said. “So their argument is pretty thin, quite frankly.”

In an affidavit from Davis Crump, which was filed as part of the suit, she said she found a note regarding a missing $50,000 from the commission in the desk she “inherited” from the previous associate director. In her affidavit, Davis Crump also claimed Waites made “lewd sexual jokes” about a member of the foundation’s board. She also said the two groups are intertwined as Waites’ son is the president of the foundation. According to the foundation’s website, Waites is also the executive director of the foundation. 

This is not the first time in recent years that a scandal has emerged from the commission. In 2016, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas began investigating the commission’s then-executive director Kimberly Greene for various embezzlement and fraud charges. The commission swiftly fired her, and in June 2019 Greene was sentenced to unsupervised probation and an order to pay more than $5,000 in restitution after she pleaded guilty.  

According to state records the foundation was incorporated in May 2017, slightly more than a year after the AG’s investigation began. 

Davis Crump’s lawsuit also mentions another records request submitted by commission member and New Mexico Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, claiming that he may have also been denied access to the records. 

Eichenberg said he filed the request with the commission, not the foundation and that his request was indeed fulfilled. 

“I did file my request and although I was disappointed in the materials that were provided, I think that they tried to honor the request,” Eichenberg told NM Political Report

Still, Candaleria said it’s “troubling” that a sitting commissioner would have to submit an official records request to get information about that commission. 

“We can all celebrate the mission of the commission,” Candelaria said. “But the commission is more important and bigger than the people currently there.”