March 2, 2023

No confirmation hearing yet for controversial cabinet choice

While a number of governor-appointed Cabinet secretaries have been confirmed by the Senate this year, to date there has been no hearing scheduled for one of the most controversial of the appointees. 

That’s James Mountain, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s choice to head the state Indian Affairs Department and who has come under fire from critics who say he shouldn’t get the job due to sexual assault allegations from a decade-and-a-half ago.

Mountain, a former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo and the governor’s appointee to be the next secretary of Indian Affairs, was accused of rape in 2007 and indicted on a number of related charges, including kidnapping and aggravated battery, the following year.

The case was dismissed in 2010 after the prosecution said it did not have enough evidence to take it to trial. The court record was put under seal.

“No comment — but ask me again tomorrow,” Senate Rules Chairwoman Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said Wednesday when asked whether her committee has planned a confirmation hearing for Mountain.

Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote in an email Wednesday that while her office has “communicated our intent to nominate Secretary-designate Mountain, we have not yet officially submitted his nomination, so no hearing is yet scheduled.

“The governor has full faith in the leadership ability of Secretary-designate Mountain and looks forward to his service as cabinet secretary of the Indian Affairs Department,” Hayden wrote.

Others are not as enthusiastic, and worry he might take the position without ever facing the Senate. 

“We’re concerned this will not make it into Senate Rules for a full confirmation hearing,” said Angel Charley, executive director of the Albuquerque-based Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

Cabinet secretaries don’t need Senate confirmation to serve in their positions. One of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s Cabinet appointees, Hanna Skandera, served as secretary of the state Public Education Department for four years before being officially confirmed by the Senate.

Some lawmakers and advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous women have raised concerns about Mountain’s appointment, saying the sexual assault charges should disqualify him from serving. At the very least, some said, Senate Rules, which initially questions and vets appointees before the full Senate votes on them, should conduct a deep dive when questioning him.

But with a little over two weeks left in this year’s 60-day legislative session, the committee has not yet scheduled a hearing for Mountain. 

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said Mountain “deserves to have a hearing on the issue to clear everything up. Without a hearing it will hang over his head.”

Last week, members of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force expressed disappointment over the governor’s selection of Mountain to lead the department — which would also make Mountain or his designee chairman of the task force. Some members threatened to resign if he is appointed.

Charley said her group is “struggling with how to deal with his possible confirmation. As survivors we know how to safety plan and we may be required to do it.”

Lujan Grisham’s office has said she does not intend to withdraw Mountain’s nomination and that critics should “respect the judicial process and acknowledge the results,” as Hayden said in a statement last week. 

“She would like for him to be secretary,” Hayden said Wednesday.