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.
A New Mexico law that allows legal settlements with state agencies to be kept a secret for at least six months may get a makeover in the next legislative session.
General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz told NM Political Report his office, which oversees the state’s Risk Management Division, is in the process of creating a working group to address a relatively unknown statute that mandates settlements stay secret for 180 days. The same law that established the Risk Management Division, which often serves as the state’s de facto insurance provider, contains a “confidentiality of records” section, which is often referred to by its citation number 15-7-9 as legal shorthand.
That section of the statute is less than 300 words and is ambiguous about exactly when the 180 days starts. There are four instances in which the law says the clock starts ticking: when “all statutes of limitation applicable to the claim have run,” when litigation is done, when the “claim” is settled or when the claim is in “closed status.”
Ortiz said previous claims filed with Risk Management were sometimes never put into closed status, simply because someone failed to close it in division’s computer system.
“I wanted to take the human element out of 15-7-9,” Ortiz said.
The failure to “physically click on a button,” Ortiz said, would sometimes delay the start of the 180 days by an extra six months.
“What we’ve seen when we reviewed settlements is, for whatever reason, it took several months after the final action on that case for the staff to administratively close it,” Ortiz said.
That means a 180-day confidentiality period could easily run for more than a year. Last year, for example, the New Mexico Corrections Department settled a lawsuit with six women who sued the state, claiming they were sexual assaulted and harassed by their superiors. That case was settled in January 2018, but GSD’s lawyer at the time said claims were not complete until all of the state’s legal bills were paid, which did not happen until six months after the case was dismissed.
Now Ortiz said he’s working with the governor’s office and lawmakers to better define when the confidentiality period starts, and possibly address whether it should even be 180 days.
Mr. Ortiz goes to the Legislature
Ortiz said he was aware of the confidentiality period before he took the job as cabinet secretary, but was not fully aware of the issues it presented until he started getting calls from news reporters—this one included—about settlements.
“We thought, ‘This is truly tax payer money and people have a right to know,’” Ortiz said.
Ortiz said conversations about transparency also came up when State Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, and State Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, introduced a bill that would require the state to post the specifics of all human rights settlements online. Ortiz said he wants to include the two lawmakers in crafting legislation to address the issue.
Monday marked the first full day in the office not just for New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, but also for two new staffers. Toulouse Oliver was sworn in as Secretary of State late last week, about a month ahead of when she was originally scheduled to take office. Toulouse Oliver’s office announced in a press release that John Blair is the new Deputy Secretary of State and Theresa Chavez-Romero is Toulouse Oliver’s executive assistant. Blair most recently worked for the U.S Department of Interior as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. Born and raised in Santa Fe, Blair also ran unsuccessfully in the primary election for the New Mexico state Senate in 2008.
A former Bernalillo County commission candidate is accusing a political action committee that advertised against him of not disclosing the bulk of its funding in time to meet state guidelines. Adrián Pedroza, a community organizer who in June lost a Democratic primary bid for an open county commission seat, filed a campaign ethics complaint against New Mexico for New Mexicans PAC last week. The complaint, filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, alleges that the PAC violated state law by not properly disclosing nearly $35,000 of its funding until one month after the June 7 primary election. That money, the vast majority of which came from Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, encompassed more than half of the PAC’s $64,500 in donations during the election cycle. “It’s really about maintaining the integrity of the election and voters knowing whose contribution went to what and for what reasons,” Pedroza’s campaign manager Neri Holguin said in an interview.
The Secretary of State’s office fixed a problem in the state’s troubled campaign finance reporting system. NM Political Report confirmed the fix with a spokesman in the office on Thursday. SOS spokesman Ken Ortiz said the problems came in a rarely used part of the website and said it was, indeed, one that no one in the office had used. He said the problems had been fixed before work hours on Thursday. The problem in the coding caused it to appear on one section of the system that the candidate failed to list the required “purpose” for each of their campaign purchases.
While former state Rep. Sandra Jeff avoided ballot disqualification after a recent scuffle with the Secretary of State, several questions remain about possible discrepancies in previous campaign reports. The biggest question is the sudden disappearance of more than $27,000 in debt from her failed 2014 campaign for reelection to the state House of Representatives. In July 2014, Jeff reported a loan contribution of $26,720.82 from Gallagher & Kennedy, a law firm with offices in Santa Fe and Phoenix. A note next to the contribution reads, “Campaign Debt for legal fees incurred.”
Jeff continued to report this debt, plus an extra $1,200 that she loaned to herself, for the next six campaign reporting periods, marking a period of nearly two years. But on March 15 of this year, Jeff amended seven old campaign reports from the 2014 election cycle.
The New Mexico Secretary of State’s office is not saying much about whether some 17-year-olds will be able to vote in the upcoming New Mexico primary elections. During the 2016 legislative session, a bill passed that allows those who will turn 18 before the general election to participate in primary elections. Gov. Susana Martinez signed the bill into law following the session. Still, it is unclear whether the Secretary of State’s office will be ready to accept votes from that age group during the primary on June 7. The Secretary of State’s Chief of Staff Ken Ortiz told NM Political Report in an email that the office is “exploring the legal options to assure the law is implemented appropriately.”
He did not provide an answer to a direct question on whether 17-year-olds would be able to vote in the upcoming primaries.
The Secretary of State disqualified former State Rep. Sandra Jeff from the ballot for the Democratic primary in Senate District 22. A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office confirmed via email Wednesday afternoon that Jeff was disqualified from the ballot “due to noncompliance with the Campaign Reporting Act.”
Amy Bailey, the general counsel of the department, later added more information. “I need to review the file for specifics, but the noncompliance is associated with reports which were due in past filing periods and the fines associated with those past issues,” Bailey said in an email. Jeff said in a phone interview on Wednesday that she was aware and was deciding whether or not to contest the disqualification. She described herself as undecided on whether or not to continue her run for State Senate.
There still isn’t a permanent Secretary of State more than a month after the resignation of Dianna Duran, but the office scheduled a public review of proposed rule changes for later this month. The proposed rule changes will be discussed at a public hearing on December 29; the rules are required to go into effect by the beginning of 2016. This year, Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill requiring the Secretary of State to start allowing online updates to existing voter registrations by the beginning of the year allow for online of new voter registrations by the beginning of July 1, 2017. Secretary of State Chief of Staff Ken Ortiz said that a lack of a permanent Secretary of State is no barrier to implementing the rule changes. “The Office of Secretary of State has an Acting Secretary, Mary Quintana who is in charge and leading the office, including the rule-making process,” Ortiz told NM Political Report in an emailed statement. “Given the strict timeframes established by the election code, Acting Secretary Quintana believes it is in the best interests of all voters and citizens that the process continue to move forward.”