Steve Terrell, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Published 5:28 p.m. MT May 24, 2019
The latest criticism of Republican former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration over a reported $1.7 million in secret state government payments to settle complaints by Department of Public Safety employees comes from her own party.
A news release issued Thursday by the New Mexico Republican Party didn’t name Martinez, who left office at the end of last year after two terms, but said, “We are deeply troubled by the recent breaking news about secret payouts to state employees that appear to have violated state procedures which are supposed to protect taxpayers from paying out frivolous claims.”
The statement, which follows a KRQE-TV report this week that settlements reached late last year call for keeping them sealed for more than four years, also said, “Regardless of which party is in power, we must enforce our public record laws and be willing to have a conversation about which laws need to be improved in order to allow the sunshine in for our state.”
The state GOP called on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state Attorney General Hector Balderas, both Democrats, to “take action to unseal these secret agreements.”
Asked about the possibility of ordering the documents unsealed, Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said Thursday, “We are evaluating statutory requirements. I know what we’d like to do: Be as transparent as possible.”
MORE: New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham authorizes 17% salary increases for Cabinet secretariesBalderas, through spokesman David Carl, said Thursday, “I am very concerned that the previous administration may have allowed these documents to be sealed well beyond the legal standard. Any documents alleging government corruption should be transparent to the public.”
Martinez and the state Republican Party chairman, former U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, who lost a bid for governor to Lujan Grisham, have headed rival factions within the party.
The settlements, according to the KRQE report, were made quickly and without any real investigation into harassment, gender discrimination and other claims by Department of Public Safety employees.
The complaints included cases involving past members of Martinez’s state police security detail that at least one lawyer for plaintiffs said contained “damaging information” that could destroy Martinez’s reputation, according to the report, which included references to Martinez’s personal life.
Martinez has publicly denied involvement in the payouts, saying, “I did not encourage, influence or become involved in any risk management settlements.”
The state Inspection of Public Records Act says a settlement involving payment of public funds should be disclosed six months after the case is resolved.
Melanie Majors, director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said this week any agreement to seal the settlements until 2023 has no basis in the law. “This settlement raises the question as to whether there is ever a good reason to keep settlements of taxpayer dollars hidden from the public,” she said.
Lujan Grisham and General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz said this week that state officials are reviewing policies and procedures on how such settlements are handled.
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