March 3, 2021

New Mexico state employee accuses Governor’s Office staffer of ethics breach

Joe Gratz

Flickr/cc

A former Public Employees Retirement Association trustee has filed an ethics complaint against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s chief operating officer, claiming Teresa Casados pressured her into voting for a pension reform bill she opposed. 

Claudia Armijo, an attorney, claims Casados last year prodded her to take part in voting to endorse a state Senate bill Lujan Grisham strongly backed as a measure to eventually pull the state’s pension system out of deep debt. In 2020, the system had an estimated $6.6 billion in unfunded liability. 

Armijo said Casados never outright told her to vote in support of the measure, but felt an implicit threat that she would lose her job if she didn’t.

A board trustee is supposed to be independent of politics and vote according to a proposal’s merits or flaws, Armijo said. 

“It’s very inappropriate of her to even order me to vote,” Armijo said in a phone interview. “What she did was improper.” 

Casados’ office didn’t respond to attempts to seek comment. 

Armijo said she was notified that the State Ethics Commission will investigate her complaint. 

She said she decided to go public with her complaint because she is concerned about the governor pushing House Bill 162, which would change the pension board from elected trustees to political appointees. 

That would enable the governor and other politicians to handpick board members who would do their bidding, even if it runs counter to the pensioners’ interests, Armijo argued. That would eliminate trustees who would object to proposals, as she did, she said. 

“This is a power grab for all the wrong reasons,” she said. 

Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s spokeswoman, dismissed Armijo’s claims about Casados and the governor seeking to control the pension board. 

“The allegations are thoroughly unsubstantiated,” Sackett wrote in an email. 

Armijo said Casados did something she had never seen during her four years as a board trustee: She relayed a message to Armijo’s supervisor to call her. 

On the phone, Casados told Armijo the bill was important to the governor, so she needed to vote. 

“She certainly was not telling me to vote against it,” Armijo said. “It was code. I had no doubt what she was telling me.”

It was important for the bill’s supporters to get the pension board’s endorsement to help sell it to the Legislature, Armijo said. 

Armijo voted “yes” on the bill, though she opposed a key provision. She said she was afraid she’d be fired from her job at the state Regulation and Licensing Department — which happened anyway several months later. 

The bill proposed giving pensioners under the age of 75 an annual 2 percent cost-of-living raise for multiple years. However, it would not be a compounding raise, Armijo said, which she opposed. 

With a compounding raise, someone receiving $1,000 per month who gets a 2 percent raise would be bumped to $1,020. The next year, the raise would be based on the $1,020. 

The bill that was proposed would’ve based the raise every year on $1,000, shortchanging the pensioner, Armijo said. 

In the end, the Legislature made the cost-of-living bumps compounding, she said. 

Armijo said she left the pension board when her term ended in December and didn’t seek reelection. 

She was fired from job as deputy superintendent at Regulation and Licensing in July for what she suspects was voicing objections to proposed policies a little too often. 

She has since taken a job at the state Treasurer’s Office working in a private sector retirement program. 

If her ethics complaint fails, she’ll probably let it end there and not take legal action. 

“I’m just hoping the Ethics Commission understands what happened,” Armijo said.