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.
“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.
Another audit turned in months after it was due reveals the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management still has problems with finances and management—some of which date back years—but is showing some signs of improvement. The 2016 audit was publicly released in late October when State Auditor Tim Keller sent a letter back to the department’s secretary, M. Jay Mitchell. The independent audit reveals 14 significant problems, some of which were also found in previous years’ audits. NM Political Report requested an interview with Mitchell or the department’s Chief Financial Officer, Sarah Peterson. The public information officer could not make either available for an interview, but Mitchell did respond via email.
David Silver thinks about the bad things: floods, fires, nuclear meltdowns, zombie apocalypses. As the city of Santa Fe’s emergency management director, it’s his job and, though that last one might sound goofy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a few years ago created a graphic novel about a zombie pandemic moving across the country. Silver chuckles at the campaign. It was a great way to get people thinking about emergency preparedness, he says. Whether preparing for roving bands of the recently reanimated or a natural or human-caused disaster, the steps are the same: have a communication plan, keep an emergency pack on hand and know who to trust.
The Office of the State Auditor released a report Wednesday showing a significant gap in pay between men and women in New Mexico. According to the report, women who are employed in managerial or policy making roles in New Mexico are paid on average 26 percent less than men in the same positions in the state. The smallest gap, according to the report, is in the service industry where women are still paid about 10 percent less than men. Besides pay gaps, the report also shows the “category for manual workers of relatively high skill level” is made up of only three percent women. In addition to showing the disparity between pay for men and women in the workforce, the auditor’s report also noted that the state’s General Services Department (GSD) has a “low compliance rate” with keeping and tracking reports submitted by state vendors.
Corruption has long been endemic to New Mexico government. And today, even when people ferret out potential problems or ethical lapses, there’s still a significant gap between the laws meant to protect people and the ability or willingness of state agencies to enforce them. In January, for example, conservation groups wrote to the state purchasing agent and director, asking him to look into a political donation from a company with a lucrative state contract. The company had contributed $1,000 to Gov. Susana Martinez’s political action committee during a time when the state’s Procurement Code prohibits political contributions, when proposals are being evaluated for the awarding of contracts. Months passed, and the activists didn’t hear back from the state purchasing agent or from the agency that had issued the contract, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC).
An overdue audit from a troubled state agency has finally been released to the public. But it raises nearly as many questions as it was supposed to answer. The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) submitted its 2015 audit to the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) nearly a year after it was due. The audit, conducted by an independent contractor, was reviewed and then posted on OSA’s website earlier this week. In a letter to DHSEM Secretary M. Jay Mitchell, State Auditor Tim Keller noted that the accountants identified 19 problems, most of which are related to grant management and financial controls.
Before he leaves to work every morning, State Auditor Tim Keller says he always talks with his young daughter about the day ahead. For him, Tuesday morning posed a problem. That’s because he wasn’t sure how to explain what he was set to present to the public. “It was little tough this morning,” Keller told a room of reporters. He released a report of proposed solutions to clear the backlog of more than 5,000 sexual assault evidence kits in police departments throughout New Mexico.