Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Jack Fortner, the longest-serving member of University of New Mexico’s governing board, stepped down Tuesday after 18 years, voluntarily relinquishing a seat Gov. Susana Martinez has tried for months to fill with someone else.
The Journal has learned that his resignation comes on the heels of an investigation by an outside counsel, which cleared him of violating any laws or policies. The investigation was sparked by an anonymous tip that claimed “misconduct.”
Fortner told the Journal on Tuesday he resigned for “a number of reasons,” including to focus more on his role as chairman of the San Juan County Commission.
But the Farmington attorney also said he believed his position had become a “distraction” to the university he loves.
“It seemed like more people were focused on me than the good of the university,” Fortner said of the institution from which he, his wife and daughter have graduated and another daughter currently attends. “I don’t want to be a distraction to the university.”
Fortner – appointed to the UNM Board of Regents by three governors, including Martinez – noted in his resignation letter to the governor that he is “grateful to have had the opportunity to serve my alma mater for nearly 20 years, and to have been able to contribute in various leadership roles to work to make our state’s flagship university an even more nationally recognized center of academics, research, medicine and athletics.”
Fortner’s seat on the seven-member board had become part of a battle among state leaders this year when the Senate failed to hold hearings on several Martinez board appointees, including her choice to replace Fortner: former Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce CEO Alex Romero.
Martinez nominated replacements for Fortner and fellow Regent Brad Hosmer, whose terms technically expired in December, but neither potential successor got a Senate hearing. Regents can continue serving beyond their scheduled terms until their replacements are confirmed or they resign. Both Fortner and Hosmer signaled their intentions in March to stick around.
The governor has repeatedly railed against the Senate’s inaction, and her spokesman called it politically motivated, a charge denied by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the committee that holds the hearings.
Martinez’s spokesman did not respond to Journal questions regarding whether the governor knew about the complaints against Fortner or who raised them, and when and with whom she would replace Fortner.
Instead, the spokesman provided the letter the governor sent to Fortner accepting his resignation and thanking him for his service.
In addition to the confirmation hearing dispute in Santa Fe, Fortner more recently faced a barrage of allegations mostly about his travel reimbursement requests through an anonymous Twitter account. He also faced the anonymous allegations through a UNM whistleblower hotline. The hotline tips prompted UNM to hire outside counsel for the independent investigation that turned up no law or policy violations, according to a letter dated May 22 and signed by a university attorney and obtained by the Journal .
“There was an anonymous complaint from some coward, and as everyone knew, they were determined to be bogus anonymous complaints that were resolved several weeks ago, but we just received written confirmation,” Fortner said Tuesday.
The letter regarding the investigation’s outcome signed by university counsel Elsa Kircher Cole indicates the school hired Judge Bruce Black to investigate allegations of “misconduct” received through a hotline.
“Judge Black has now concluded his investigation and determined that no violation of state or federal law or University policy has occurred,” Kircher Cole wrote, adding that Black recommends Regents “be more transparent in the future regarding regent activities and reimbursement allowances to help prevent anonymous sources raising questions and allegations like those involved in this matter.”
Pressure from governor?
Fortner’s resignation came a day before UNM’s budget summit, during which regents are set to decide 2017-18 tuition rates and discuss other critical financial matters. His departure also comes amid a search for UNM’s next president.
Regent President Rob Doughty said he could not comment on how or when Martinez would replace Fortner, but he said the board still has the quorum required to make decisions.
He said in a written statement that UNM “is thankful for (Fortner’s) service and experience.”
Regent Vice President Marron Lee said in an interview she did not consider Fortner a distraction.
“There was a question on whether or not he was going to remain or be replaced and, of course, we as regents don’t play a part in that,” she said.
She followed up with a written statement wishing him well.
“Regent Fortner’s many years of service to UNM, optimistic spirit, and enthusiastic commitment to being a lifelong Lobo will always be a part of the university’s history,” she wrote.
Sen. Steve Neville R-Farmington, on Tuesday lauded Fortner as a “good regent” and friend who he wanted to see continue in the role. But he said he could understand Martinez’s frustration over the Senate not holding hearings on the people Martinez wanted to install and said the issue “certainly was a distraction for the governor.”
“I just sense that Jack was getting a lot of pressure from the governor and probably some other avenues as well and sometimes those can be unfair, and I can understand why he would not want to continue if that was the case,” Neville said.