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Editorial: Roundhouse harassment

In light of the heightened interest both locally and nationally in sexual harassment, it’s simply unacceptable that the director of the New Mexico Legislature’s administrative arm is refusing to release records related to two sexual harassment complaints at the state Capitol.

Legislative Council Service Director Raúl Burciaga claims that one of the few exemptions to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act – which excludes “matters of opinion” in personnel files from disclosure – allows him to withhold the complaints.

And, although an IPRA request by the Journal sought documents related to such complaints filed in the past five years, Burciaga inexplicably also left out allegations against Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, who was accused by an outgoing legislative branch official of sexual harassment in 2016. Sapien says the claims are a “fabrication.”

Gregory Williams, president of the watchdog organization New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, cites a state Court of Appeals ruling that determined complaints against police officers are public record – which begs the question of why complaints against elected officials and Capitol employees wouldn’t be. Williams notes that state law allows redaction of “opinions” in such documents, but “everything else must be provided, including witness statements, final disciplinary records, etc.”

The issue of sexual misconduct has come under heightened scrutiny – both in New Mexico and nationally – amid a wave of allegations levied against prominent male politicians, actors and media figures.

State Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla recently dropped out of the race for lieutenant governor over sexual harassment allegations lodged against him a decade ago when he was employed by the city of Albuquerque’s dispatch center. The allegations, which he denied, were widely reported at the time, and the city ended up settling “sexually hostile work environment” claims.

A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released Wednesday shows three out of four polled call workplace sexual harassment a serious problem in need of real solutions. That was the overwhelming opinion by men and women, Republicans and Democrats. Overall, 74 percent of those polled said they are less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she faces credible allegations of sexual misconduct. Tuesday’s defeat of Alabama Sen. Roy Moore, accused of serially hitting on teenage girls half his age, supports the poll’s findings.

Burciaga said the two sexual harassment allegations filed in the past five years involve Capitol employees and not elected officials. However, they are still public employees working on taxpayers’ dime, and given Burciaga’s broad interpretation of the act, sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers could presumably fall under the same blanket of secrecy – which protects only the guilty.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas should review Burciaga’s claimed exemption and issue an opinion. Although his opinion isn’t legally binding, it would put the burden on the Legislative Council Service to challenge it, if it so chooses.

In view of the current, and much needed, focus on sexual harassment, including a potential legislative revamping of state harassment policy, we can think of few public records of more interest to the voting public than those accusing legislators – who must ultimately decide what’s lawful and what is not – of sexual harassment.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.