Raúl Torrez won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, defeating Brian Colón. Torrez is a former federal prosecutor whose resume includes attending both Harvard and Stanford universities. He currently serves as the Bernalillo County district attorney—a position he has held for five years—and that county provided him with a healthy advantage. As results came in, Torrez took 57.7 percent of the early and absentee voters in Bernalillo County.
As the district attorney, Torrez announced last year a memorandum of understanding with the state Indian Affairs Division to form a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force subunit within the district attorney’s office. Torrez also served as assistant attorney general in 2008 and 2009 where he handled cases of police misconduct and exploitation of children.
The state’s top elections official and top lawyer issued a warning over an election “audit” taking place in Otero County, telling residents they are under no obligation to participate in the audit or provide any information. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, in a call with media members on Wednesday, referred to the effort as a “vigilante audit” and said “there is nothing that is legitimate about this process in my point of view.”
It came to light after a TikTok video by an Otero County voter received lots of attention when she highlighted a visit from a group called the New Mexico Audit Force.
The effort, which echoes efforts made by conservatives and some far-right politicians throughout the country regarding the 2020 elections, was authorized by the Otero County Commission and outsourced to the New Mexico Audit Force. That group is sending volunteers door-to-door to speak to voters and gather personal information. Attorney General Hector Balderas and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver issued a release to remind voters of their rights and what information is publicly available in the form of voter records. No voter is required to provide information on who they voted for or on how they voted on ballot issues, the two reminded.
A state commission that is tasked with promoting the values of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continually failed to rectify financial improprieties and inconsistencies, according to the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor.
State Auditor Brian Colón sent a letter on Monday to New Mexico Martin Luther King Jr. Commission Executive Director Leonard Waites and commission members with concerns about how the commission has handled its internal financial affairs. Colón wrote that since 2016, when Waites became executive director, Colón’s office has found “numerous findings of material weaknesses and material non-compliance” in the commission’s audit reports and that the issues were not resolved and persisted in the following years.
“Within the fiscal year 2015 and 2016 audits, the Commission’s response to each finding presented included, ‘This occurred under previous management and the current Executive Director has put procedures in place that should resolve this finding during the fiscal year 2017 audit,’” Colón wrote. “Executive Director Waites has been in the Executive Director position since August 2016, and the issues remain the same.”
In an interview with NM Political Report, Colón said his office found “red flags” in the commission’s audit reports that include purchase orders made after the date of corresponding invoices and invoices that were not properly documented.
“These are really, really red flags,” Colón said. “ And they’re not necessarily red flags for embezzlement, but they’re red flags for failure of paying attention to the financial order of the house.”
Waites did not respond to a request for comment, but he told the Albuquerque Journal that he was surprised by Colón’s claims.
Colón said the commission spends roughly a quarter of a million dollars of money allocated by the state annually, but that the issue is more than a dollar amount.
“Before you talk about that number, though, you have to talk about a principled approach to oversight,” Colón said. “And for me, it’s not the size of the transaction, it’s not the size of the agency.
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.
In a press conference Monday, New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón announced his office’s findings regarding multiple secret payouts approved by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Colón said he was “disappointed” and “disgusted” with the way the Martinez administration handled 18 confidential legal settlements totalling $5 million in taxpayer money. The payouts were in response to a lawsuit filed against Martinez and her former chief of police, alleging workplace harrasment and discrimination.
“This is about abuse of power, a lack of transparency, and particularly as it relates to political appointees by our former governor,” Colón said.
The Martinez administration finalized the settlements in question just before she left office and approved by a cabinet secretary she appointed. News stories about the settlement highlighted not only a mysterious audio recording that reportedly contained a conversation between Martinez and her husband, but also an unusually long confidentiality period.
But state law still allows settlements like these to remain confidential for 180 days. Colón said he’d like to see a change in that law.
“I look forward to standing at the Legislature and explaining to them if we’re going to restore people’s trust in government, we have to change the confidentiality agreement, period,” Colón said.
Colón is not the first official to call for a revamp of the state’s confidentiality law for legal settlements.
Days after a local news report on $1.7 million worth of court settlements, paid by the former Gov. Susana Martinez administration to about a half dozen former state employees, one state official said his office will conduct an audit. Since the story broke earlier this month, New Mexico’s State Auditor announced an official audit to examine how and why the legal settlements were made confidential for years instead of the statutory deadline which outlines six months. Meanwhile, lawyers for some of those employees want a local television station to remove their story on the issue from its website.
State Auditor Brian Colón announced Tuesday morning that his office will conduct a special audit on the settlements between the state and a half dozen former state employees who claimed they were targets of harassment and retaliation from former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. “I’m concerned by the lack of transparency, the extreme length of confidentiality of the settlement terms, and the timing of these settlements, Colón said in a statement.
Democrats swept statewide races on Election Day, and will control not just the governor’s office and all of the executive agencies, but also independent state agencies that oversee everything from state funds to state lands. Democratic incumbent Tim Eichenberg easily won the race for State Treasurer over Republican Arthur Castillo and Democrat Brian Colón defeated Republican Wayne Johnson for State Auditor. In the three-way race for Attorney General, Democratic incumbent Hector Balderas beat Republican Michael Hendricks and Libertarian Blair Dunn. And another Democratic incumbent, Maggie Toulouse Oliver defeated Republican Gavin Clarkson and Libertarian Ginger Grider to hold on to the Secretary of State seat. The closest statewide race on Election Day was for State Land Commissioner.
Campaign finance reports filed Monday showed positives for both gubernatorial candidates, with the Republican showing a lead with money left, but the Democrat raised, and spent, more money. Republican nominee Steve Pearce finished the campaign finance period—which lasted from July 1 to Sept. 3—with nearly $1.9 million cash-on-hand for the final two months of the race. This was well ahead of the $1.2 million cash-on-hand for his opponent, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham. Lujan Grisham, however, raised $1.9 million in the period and spent almost $1.5 million.
“It’s going to be a nail-biter,” Garrett VeneKlasen said, early in the night as he and fellow Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard were neck-and-neck in the race for New Mexico State Land Commissioner. And indeed it was, as the two traded the lead throughout the night, with Garcia Richard, a state representative, pulling ahead as the final results from Bernalillo County came in late Tuesday night, giving her a two percentage point lead over VeneKlasen. Despite a last-minute ad campaign, state Sen. George Muñoz finished almost 15 percentage points behind the two front-runners. “I feel very gratified the voters responded to my cause,” Garcia Richard said. “I was outspent, I didn’t have the institutional support my opponents had and I didn’t have the endorsements they had.”
In November’s general election, she will face Republican Pat Lyons, who previously held the office for two terms, from 2003 until 2010. A rancher, Lyons currently represents District 2 on the Public Regulation Commission.
Two of the three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor have over $1.5 million cash on hand for the final stretch before the primary election on June 5. Early voting has already started. State Sen. Joseph Cervantes has now loaned his own campaign over $2 million and raised only about $15,000 from others. He now has $1.65 million cash on hand. U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham raised over $410,000 and spent nearly $640,000 between April 3 and May 7.