Auditor: New Mexico secret settlements were ‘abuse of power’
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Around $2.7 million in secret settlements with appointees under former New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez were an “abuse of power” and were awarded without proper protocols, State Auditor Brian Colon said Monday.
Announcing the findings from a recent audit of the sealed agreements, Colon said his office found that 12 settlements lacked proper documentation and investigations. He said the secret settlements, which were settled in a fraction of the time compared to others, appeared to be protecting the former Republican governor’s “political legacies” and her political agendas rather than taxpayers.
“I’m disappointed and heartbroken that I found there was a lack of transparency, there was a lack of putting taxpayers first and there was a lack of process, procedure and investigation when it came to these settlements,” said Colon, a Democrat.
The special audit came following revelations about secret settlements of lawsuits against state officials under the Martinez administration. Some of those settlements were sealed until she left office at the end of 2018.
Colon said his office expanded its investigation after uncovering more cases previously unknown to the public.
“That lack of investigation and process leads me to only one conclusion: there was an abuse of power,” Colon said. “There was virtual no proof in the record why these high dollar amounts were approved.”
In August, the state acknowledged that it paid $900,000 to three State Police officials who complained of workplace discrimination and retaliation by the state’s former police chief. It resolved a lawsuit alleging discriminatory and lewd behavior by former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, along with retaliation against those who complained.
Other cases included past members of the Martinez’s security detail and involved what one lawyer for the plaintiffs described as damaging information about her personal life.
The settlements included information about claims made by a member of her state police security detail that Martinez directed her to record a phone conversation with the governor’s husband, Chuck Franco.
Critics of the payouts have suggested the cases were quickly settled out of fear that personal information about the governor might be made public.
Martinez did not immediately return a phone message.
Colon said he forwarded the audit to the state attorney general’s office and a district attorney.
The attorney general’s office has confirmed it received complaints regarding the settlements.
In a statement, the General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz said the department no longer enters into settlements with confidentiality periods that extend beyond those established by state law.
“Over the past several months, the Risk Management Division has implemented new policies and procedures to ensure that all claims are examined thoroughly, objectively and consistently and that all settlement decisions are well reasoned and well documented,” Ortiz said.
The Republican Party of New Mexico, which has distanced itself from Martinez since she left office, said in a statement that all public officials should be held accountable for their actions.
“No one is above the law. In addition, it is imperative that any such settlements never be a burden on New Mexico taxpayers,” the party said.