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.
Delegates for the Democratic Party of New Mexico chose their preferred candidates for statewide and federal races Saturday afternoon at the state pre-primary convention. But before candidates finished their stump speeches, a brief protest and an alliance between two gubernatorial candidates caused some excitement. The Democratic convention showed higher numbers of both the number of candidates and convention attendees than the recent Republican and Libertarian state parties. Six state and federal candidates emerged from contested races as party favorites for the Democratic primary election in June. While he denied rumors that he was dropping out, gubernatorial candidate Peter DeBenedittis used his speech to encourage delegates to cast votes for another candidate in the race, Jeff Apodaca.
The recent Albuquerque and Las Cruces municipal elections, along with other races nationwide, could signal a warning for Republicans in the 2018 elections. The pendulum looks to be swinging from Republican gains during the Barack Obama years to Democratic gains in response to Donald Trump, according to Brian Sanderoff, the president of the Albuquerque-based Research & Polling, Inc.
“I think the political mood right now benefits Democrats,” he said. “And I think part of that is due to the fact that a Republican is in the White House, has lower approval ratings and all the dynamics that go with that.”
In New Mexico, 2018 will be an important election year with the governor’s race, a U.S. Senate seat, three U.S. congressional districts and a number of other statewide positions up for grabs. Locally, Tim Keller’s comprehensive victory in Albuquerque for mayor, the flipping of a previously Republican-held Albuquerque city council seat and the progressive sweep of the Las Cruces city council show how national shifts are reflected in New Mexico politics. “That’s American politics, du jour, that it goes back and forth,” University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said.
The third place candidate in this month’s mayoral election officially announced Wednesday his support of State Auditor Tim Keller in next month’s runoff election. Albuquerque attorney Brian Colón, who received 16 percent of the votes last month announced his endorsement of Keller. While the race is non-partisan, both are Democrats. Meanwhile, a candidate that received under five percent of the vote endorsed Keller’s opponent, Dan Lewis. Michelle Garcia Holmes, a former Albuquerque Police Department detective, endorsed Lewis.