Legislature approves reforms involving state settlements
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is moving toward easing restrictions on the release of information on financial settlements involving state officials and payouts to whistleblowers.
A bill was on its way to the governor’s desk Monday that would eliminate a 180-day waiting period for the disclosure of financial agreements to resolve a variety of complaints against state officials. Final legislative approval came with a unanimous vote of the House on Sunday evening.
The legislation came in response to financial settlements approved during the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez, including a series of payouts that were sealed until the two-term Republican left office at the end of 2018.
State and local prosecutors are reviewing those settlements in response to a special audit by State Auditor Brian Colón, who has characterized as an abuse of power a dozen settlements that were signed without sufficient documentation or investigation.
Martinez says she was not involved in the settlement decisions by the state risk management division. She declined to elaborate on details of the process.
The reform bill from Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque also would eliminate criminal misdemeanor penalties for improper disclosure of public records that could bar employees from state employment for five years.
In a statement, Rue said the bill “closes a loophole that could extend the release of information about a claim indefinitely.”
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to sign the bill. Under her administration, the General Services Department has begun publishing settlements terms online and has conducted an audit of settlement procedures that uncovered poor controls and the past use of outside attorneys without valid contracts.
Secrecy provisions concerning settlements appear to date back to lawsuits against the state in aftermath the deadly 1980 riot at a state penitentiary outside Santa Fe as the state sought to protect itself against coordinated financial claims, according to General Service Secretary Ken Ortiz.
Among $2.7 million in settlements flagged for irregularities by auditors, the state has acknowledged it previously paid $900,000 to three State Police officials. That payment resolved a lawsuit alleging discriminatory, lewd behavior and retaliation.
This version corrects that Sen. Sander Rue is a Republican.