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Couture Payout Opinion Sought

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LAS CRUCES – Every year since 2009, Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, has sponsored legislation aimed at ending what he calls golden parachutes for public employees who are fired from or resign from high-paid positions.

Now, spurred by a $453,093 post-employment payment promised to departing New Mexico State University President Barbara Couture, Rehm is seeking a formal opinion from Attorney General Gary King as to whether such payments are legal.

Rehm said he decided to seek the AG’s opinion “after being stonewalled so many times” in the Legislature, where his bills have never made it out of committee.

“This is the first time anyone’s ever asked for an AG opinion on this issue,” Rehm said Tuesday.

The NMSU Board of Regents announced Couture’s “mutually acceptable separation” from the university on Oct. 1 while approving a “settlement agreement and release of liability” that provides Couture a $453,093 lump-sum payment due no later than Jan. 15, 2013. Couture’s employment with NMSU ends Dec. 31, according to the settlement.

Couture also gets to live in the university president’s home and use a car provided by the university until Dec. 31, even though she has started work as a senior adviser with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C.

“Such a payment to be given without the receipt of employment services would constitute a donation or gift without consideration in violation of the anti-donation clause” of the New Mexico Constitution, Rehm wrote in a letter to King.

“Moreover, the fact that NMSU may make such a payment after the date of her official resignation also indicates a proposed gift or donation without consideration, in violation of the state constitution,” Rehm’s letter adds.

NMSU general counsel Bruce Kite declined to comment on Rehm’s letter to the attorney general.

Couture is not the first high-ranking university official in the state to get a major payday while leaving a job. Former University of New Mexico President Louis Caldera received a $713,000 settlement in exchange for resigning in 2003. Former state Sen. Manny Aragon received $200,000 while resigning as president of New Mexico Highlands University in 2006.

NMSU regents have not responded to questions about why it was necessary to pay Couture $453,093 when she resigned.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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