Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Time to end settlements made in secret


November 20, 2019

Words like “blackmail” and “coverup” have been tossed around.

That might overstate what prompted New Mexico to shell out $2 million in taxpayer dollars to two groups of women who alleged discrimination and retaliation by top officials in the state Department of Public Safety — money paid as the clock ran out on the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. But there is an element of cloak and dagger surrounding the role a secret recording of a conversation involving the governor’s husband, Chuck Franco, played in the cases.

The whole sordid episode is one more compelling reason for the Legislature to lift the veil on secret settlements by state Risk Management.

To recap: The plaintiffs represented by different lawyers had filed complaints with the state Human Rights Bureau alleging various illegal discriminatory actions. At the last minute — in November of 2018 — former Martinez confidante and the former highest ranking female at DPS, Amy Orlando, filed a complaint and essentially joined one of the two groups of plaintiffs. Two weeks later, her claim for mediation was rejected by state Workforce Solutions, which said it wanted an investigation.

By Dec. 27, Orlando’s claim was settled for $300,000 during a confidential mediation. Her co-plaintiffs received $300,000 and $400,000.

To say this fast-tracked timeline is unusual would be a major understatement.

The other group settled for $1 million at a mediation Dec. 11-12, claiming egregious conduct by then-state Police Chief Pete Kassetas. Both groups of plaintiffs and the state agreed to confidentiality extending into the next decade.

That’s an easy quid pro quo: money for secrecy.

Which brings us to the recording — allegedly made by a female member of the governor’s security detail at Martinez’s direction. In the recorded conversation between the security member and Franco, he made heated accusations about his wife and others; the recording was filed away for several years until the legal claims arose and attorneys for DPS asked the claimants to produce any recordings relevant to their claims.

Lawyers for the state presumably listened to it before closing the deal, but if the recording still exists, Risk Management officials say it’s not in their possession.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham elected not to enforce the confidentiality provisions beyond the most limited period allowed by current law — at least 180 days after a case is resolved — after Kassetas went public that the discrimination claims were without merit and the state rolled over to protect Martinez from the embarrassing claims on the recording.

For their part, lawyers for at least one set of plaintiffs planned to use the recording with confidentiality attached if their case went to court. But they say their case had merit and bristle at the notion it was resolved because of the recording and its allegedly sordid content. Rather they say the recording was “sensitive evidence” that explained why the governor and her top echelon were reticent to call Kassetas — whom they refer to as a “bozo” — to account for his behavior.

The mediations were confidential, as are the attorney records documenting the merit of the claims. So we don’t know which side might be correct in the role the recording played.

Whatever happens next, this much is clear: It’s time to end secret state settlements with taxpayer money. It’s a simple fix, and there is no reason for the governor not to include it on her call for the upcoming 30-day session and for lawmakers to pass it.

— Albuquerque Journal


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