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Just say no to secret settlements

May 27, 2019

An all-too common practice of using secret settlements to shield details of lawsuits against state government needs to stop.

The latest example of why it is wrong to pay out taxpayer dollars and then bury the details occurred in the last months of the Susana Martinez administration, when lawyers for the state settled complaints by Department of Public Safety employees quickly and with little examination of the merits of their claims.

News of the settlements first surfaced in KRQE-TV reports, with New Mexican reporter Steve Terrell also examining the issue in articles last week. On top of paying the plaintiffs, the settlements were sealed until 2023. The state Inspection of Public Records Act holds that settlements involving public funds can be disclosed after six months. The length of the secrecy clause raises a number of red flags. Just what did the state want to hide?

Adding to the speculation over these settlements are accusations that lawsuits were settled quickly and quietly because the details would damage Gov. Martinez’s personal reputation. There’s an appearance that taxpayer dollars were spent to keep people quiet.

Regardless of why the complaints were settled quickly, here’s the bottom line: Taxpayers deserve to know why $1.7 million went to these secret government payouts. Both Attorney General Hector Balderas and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham say they will examine the details of these late-term settlements, and that’s a welcome first step.

First, they must find out if state lawyers were protecting the interests of New Mexico or of the governor. The cases involve claims of harassment and discrimination, with several accusations against then-state police Chief Pete Kassetas. He has been accused of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, as well as harassing female employees, all charges he denies. Too-fast settlements denied him a chance to defend his good name, as well as for the state to examine the claims in an attempt to discover just what was happening at the Department of Public Safety.

More than simply examining what just happened, there’s a public interest in stopping sealed lawsuits going forward. Melanie Majors, director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, had it exactly right when she said: “This settlement raises the question as to whether there is ever a good reason to keep settlements of taxpayer dollars hidden from the public.” Lawmakers can make sure secret payouts stop if policy changes are not enough to change the practice.

General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz has been charged with looking into how such settlements are handled, with other officials examining policies for dealing with lawsuits. It is essential that settlements do not happen without oversight. Taxpayers deserve to have an accounting of how their dollars are spent.

They also deserve to know if an essential public agency — and the Department of Public Safety certainly qualifies as one — is being run correctly. At the least, these multiple complaints show an agency in disarray. It appears operations at DPS, state police and the governor’s security detail more resembled a soap opera than a professional organization.

We don’t care about the details of Martinez’s possible arguments with her husband, Chuck Franco, reportedly recorded by one of the governor’s security officers at her demand. We do need to know whether tax dollars were forked over as hush money rather than to settle legitimate claims.

We are pleased to see criticism of the payouts from the New Mexico Republican Party — unlike in Washington, D.C., where party politics seems to excuse crass and even unconstitutional behavior, GOP members are calling for transparency over the settlements and want them unsealed, even though they happened under the watch of their party’s governor. That’s as it should be.

To be clear, Martinez has denied any involvement in the payoffs. Be that as it may, taxpayers deserve the full, unvarnished truth. That won’t happen until the secrecy stops.

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