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New Mexico auditor cites timing as concern in settlements

By MORGAN LEEMay 29, 2019
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, New Mexico state auditor-elect Brian Colon delivers his acceptance speech in Albuquerque, New Mexico. New Mexico's state auditor announced Tuesday, May, 28, 2019, an examination of the state's system for settling lawsuits against the state by its employees, in the wake of secretive settlement payouts to the State Police security detail for former Gov. Susana Martinez. (AP Photo/Juan Labreche, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, New Mexico state auditor-elect Brian Colon delivers his acceptance speech in Albuquerque, New Mexico. New Mexico's state auditor announced Tuesday, May, 28, 2019, an examination of the state's system for settling lawsuits against the state by its employees, in the wake of secretive settlement payouts to the State Police security detail for former Gov. Susana Martinez. (AP Photo/Juan Labreche, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Office of the State Auditor will review a series of recent state financial settlements that resolved workplace complaints by state personnel including members of the former governor’s security detail, State Auditor Brian Colón announced Tuesday.

The special audit will focus on settlement payments of $1.7 million that resolved complaints by six individuals, with accusations ranging from wrongful termination to hostile workplace issues.

The payouts to Public Safety Department personnel were authorized last year near the end of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Martinez denies involvement in the agreements.

Critics of the payouts have suggested the cases were quickly settled out of fear that personal information about the governor might be made public.

The administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday said it will make public the terms of at least one settlement agreement in the coming weeks, after the expiration of a 180-day blackout period.

Colón said his office can examine possible “overrides” of required procedures and protocols for arriving at settlement agreements.

“My concern here in this particular set of agreements and settlements is the pace in which these settlements occurred,” said Colón, a Democrat elected last year as state auditor. “The timeline is quite concerning. ... Were the processes that are in place to protect New Mexico’s taxpayers adhered to in this set of circumstances?”

The attorney general’s office has confirmed it received complaints regarding the settlements.

Attorneys for three plaintiffs to a lawsuit against former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas on Tuesday said they welcome the review of the settlement process by the state auditor or attorney general, alleging that the Public Safety Department that employed Kassetas failed to investigate written complaints that were filed with the state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the spring of 2017 prior to litigation.

Kassetas has been accused of discrimination and retaliatory behavior. He, in turn, has accused plaintiffs’ attorneys of trying to “extort” state government and lamented that the state didn’t mount a defense, in a news report by KRQE.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys Linda Hemphill and Diane Garrity on Tuesday issued a statement suggesting that any investigation into the settlement also look at why Kassetas was allowed to keep his job without leave amid complaints about “unethical and discriminatory behaviors.”

They brought a lawsuit against Kassetas and the state on behalf of former state police officers Monica Martinez-Jones, Ryan Suggs and Julia Armendariz. On Tuesday, they explained that damage claims were based on lost wages and retirement benefits as a result of discrimination and retaliation — calculated at between $1.4 million and $1.7 million.

Colón said the audit by his office and an independent public accountant should take between 60 days and 90 days to complete. His office has subpoena authority but does not prosecute potential legal violations.

Lujan Grisham has directed the state General Services Department to develop new procedures to ensure reviews are done for all claims. The agency’s Risk Management Division oversees legal defenses for state employees.

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