New Mexico state employee accuses Governor’s Office staffer of ethics breach

A former Public Employees Retirement Association trustee has filed an ethics complaint against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s chief operating officer, claiming Teresa Casados pressured her into voting for a pension reform bill she opposed. 

Claudia Armijo, an attorney, claims Casados last year prodded her to take part in voting to endorse a state Senate bill Lujan Grisham strongly backed as a measure to eventually pull the state’s pension system out of deep debt. In 2020, the system had an estimated $6.6 billion in unfunded liability. 

Armijo said Casados never outright told her to vote in support of the measure, but felt an implicit threat that she would lose her job if she didn’t. A board trustee is supposed to be independent of politics and vote according to a proposal’s merits or flaws, Armijo said. 

“It’s very inappropriate of her to even order me to vote,” Armijo said in a phone interview. “What she did was improper.” 

Casados’ office didn’t respond to attempts to seek comment. 

Armijo said she was notified that the State Ethics Commission will investigate her complaint. 

She said she decided to go public with her complaint because she is concerned about the governor pushing House Bill 162, which would change the pension board from elected trustees to political appointees. 

That would enable the governor and other politicians to handpick board members who would do their bidding, even if it runs counter to the pensioners’ interests, Armijo argued. That would eliminate trustees who would object to proposals, as she did, she said. 

“This is a power grab for all the wrong reasons,” she said. 

Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s spokeswoman, dismissed Armijo’s claims about Casados and the governor seeking to control the pension board. 

“The allegations are thoroughly unsubstantiated,” Sackett wrote in an email. 

Armijo said Casados did something she had never seen during her four years as a board trustee: She relayed a message to Armijo’s supervisor to call her. 

On the phone, Casados told Armijo the bill was important to the governor, so she needed to vote. 

“She certainly was not telling me to vote against it,” Armijo said.

Bill seeks to move PERA board from elected to appointed

At the start of their meeting last week, members of the New Mexico Public Employees Retirement Association Board of Trustees spent 12 minutes talking over one other and arguing about the agenda and parliamentary procedures. “I really want to move forward,” an exasperated David J. Roybal said at one point of the bickering. “I feel that currently we spend a lot more time, as you can tell, on administrative oversight and Robert’s Rules of Order and personal attacks, when we need to get back to work being fiduciaries.” The dissension and animosity have become commonplace for a board beset by infighting. In 2018, board members famously debated over snacks.

PERA reform bill clears House

A plan that would increase contributions from public workers and the state to the Public Employees Retirement Association to get the pension system on a path to solvency is nearly on its way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. The House approved the legislation in a 40-28 vote Monday after hours of debate. Senate Bill 72 calls for a rise in contributions and a temporary suspension of cost-of-living increases for some retirees in an effort to ensure PERA can continue pension payouts well into the future, supporters say. It also calls for reduced cost-of-living increases in the years after the suspension ends. The House made a technical change to an amendment to SB 72, so the measure will need to return to the Senate for approval before going to the governor’s desk, said Daniel Marzec, a spokesman for the House Democrats.

Senate approves pension fix

The New Mexico Senate on Wednesday approved a $76 million investment in the state Public Employees Retirement Association in a move to get the pension system on a path to solvency. Senate Bill 72, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, also comes with costs for government employers and public workers — who will pay more into the retirement system — and retirees, many of whom will receive smaller cost-of-living increases in their payouts. The state has no choice, Muñoz told fellow senators, because of the $16 billion PERA fund’s unfunded liabilities of about $6.6 billion. “We are avoiding the cliff if we do this,” he said. “At the end of the day, this fund has to be solvent.”

PERA solvency bill advances from key committee after emotional hearing

A key Senate panel approved a bill on Monday aimed at erasing the state pension system’s $6.6 billion unfunded liability after an emotionally charged moment in which the committee chair cut off a speaker in the audience. The Senate Finance Committee passed Senate Bill 72 by a vote of 10-2, sending the legislation backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to the floor. 

“It’s hard to do it in a 30-day session, but it’s going to be even harder when we have to cut benefits to employees in a special session,” said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, suggesting legislators needed to guard against a potential economic downturn. “I think the retirees are a little upset,” Muñoz added, “but we’re watching after their future.”

As it turned out, the bill’s opponents were more than just a little upset on Monday. In comments before the committee, Loretta Naranjo Lopez, a member of the Public Employees Retirement Association’s board, accused the pension system’s staff of “embezzlement” and the governor of “undue and unethical influence” on the board. 

Sen. John Arthur Smith, the committee’s chair, was having none of it. He slammed his gavel multiple times, demanding she speak about the bill itself instead of making accusations.

Long-term fixes for PERA could be tough sell

A Senate Democrat stood outside a Roundhouse committee room Thursday with the head of New Mexico’s retirement system, expressing her concerns about a proposal to reform it. Wayne Propst, head of the Public Employees Retirement Association, tried to alleviate her worries. But Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez isn’t alone. Several members of her caucus, as well as retirees, are expressing unease about the bill, aimed at putting the pension system on a path to solvency. “It is a concern that I’ve been raising,” Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque said in an interview later, adding she’s getting questions from worried constituents.

House OKs police double dipping bill

A proposal to allow retired law enforcement officers across the state to return to their old jobs cleared the House floor Wednesday evening after a three-hour debate. The House passed the bill on a 38-29 vote, with five Democrats joining all Republicans present for the vote. Sponsor Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, argued that it would solve staffing problems at police departments across the state. He emphasized that several county sheriffs across the state support the legislation, not just the city of Albuquerque and Albuquerque Police Department. Still, he had Albuquerque City Attorney Jessica Hernandez as his expert witness.

House panel passes bill to return cops to work

A bill to allow retired cops to return to their police departments across the state passed its first House committee, a marked difference from last year when it died quickly. The measure passed the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee on partisan lines, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting against. Sponsored by Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, this time the bill doesn’t hurt the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico fund. Or at least that’s the promise the veteran legislator made. Albuquerque City Attorney Jessica Hernandez testified that former cops who decide to return to work won’t be able to add to their pensions, but would still have to contribute to the PERA fund.