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Settlements prompt review of New Mexico’s settlement system

May 23, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Questions about $1.7 million in payouts by New Mexico to settle legal claims have prompted a review of policies and procedures regarding such agreements.

The settlements were made near the end of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, Albuquerque television station KRQE reports . Martinez, a Republican who left office at the end of 2018 after two consecutive terms, has denied involvement in the agreements.

The cases included past members of the former governor’s security detail and involved what one lawyer for the plaintiffs described as damaging information about the politician’s personal life.

Details will remain secret since the settlements are sealed until 2023, but open government advocates tell the Santa Fe New Mexican there’s no legal basis for sealing settlements that long.

The Republican Party of New Mexico issued its own statement Thursday, advocating for state officials — including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas, both Democrats — to take action.

“New Mexico has a long and troubling history of public corruption and secret deals like the ones we are hearing about this week only make our state’s reputation worse and prevents us from achieving our full potential,” the party said.

The attorney general’s office has confirmed it received complaints regarding the settlements, and Lujan Grisham has directed the state General Services Department to develop new procedures to ensure reviews are done for all claims.

“I expect — and New Mexicans deserve — nothing less than thorough, factual and consistent investigations when claims are made against state government,” Lujan Grisham said.

The television station’s report on the settlements included information about claims made by a member of Martinez’s state police security detail that the former governor directed her to record a phone conversation with the governor’s husband, Chuck Franco.

Former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas in a Dec. 21 email to Martinez and other top administration officials accused plaintiffs’ lawyers of trying to “extort” the state government.

In some of the cases, Kassetas himself was accused of discrimination and retaliation. He denied those claims, saying the state should have mounted a defense.

“I think the public would be outraged that these cases were settled without proper investigation,” Kassetas told KRQE.

The employees filing claims against the state included Department of Public Safety Deputy Secretary Amy Orlando, who alleged discrimination when she was transferred to another agency. Orlando was a longtime friend and former employee of Martinez.

State Police Sgt. Monica Martinez-Jones alleged discrimination because, in part, she had been passed over for promotion. An investigator said the allegations were not substantiated, but Martinez-Jones sought a settlement.

Deputy State Police Chief Ryan Suggs alleged harassment, hostile work environment and retaliation.

State Police Sgt. Julia Armendariz was transferred from the governor’s security detail. She claimed discrimination.

Martinez-Jones, Suggs, and Armendariz demanded $4.2 million, collectively, to settle their cases.

In documents obtained by KRQE, attorneys for the plaintiffs referenced compromising or embarrassing information about the governor’s personal life. Critics have suggested the cases were quickly settled out of fear that personal information about the governor might be made public.

Former State Risk Management Director Lara White Davis was responsible for approving the settlements. She had no comment on the cases settled late in the Martinez administration.

Martinez in a written statement issued to the station said she” did not encourage, influence or become involved” in any of the settlements.

She wrote that the security detail for any governor is necessarily present for some of the most private experiences. She pointed to the deaths of her father and brother, her sister’s health episodes and hospitalizations as well as personal disagreements within a marriage.

“It would be deeply disappointing if someone on the security detail chose to catalog that personal information for their own benefit,” Martinez wrote.

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Information from: KRQE-TV, http://www.krqe.com

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