Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Attorney General Hector Balderas is asking state lawmakers to adopt legislation making it clear that the University of New Mexico Foundation and similar groups must operate in public and release public records upon request.
He is also seeking approval of a bill that would reduce the amount public agencies can charge for copying public records – from $1 for each printed page to 10 cents a page.
“We want citizens to have access to critical public information, in order to build a state government that is fair and open to all New Mexico citizens,” Balderas, a Democrat, said in a written statement Thursday.
The bills were heralded by transparency advocates, including the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, which publicly supported both bills.
House Bill 29 comes after the UNM Foundation initially refused to release documents requested by independent watchdog Daniel Libit, who subsequently filed a lawsuit under the state Inspection of Public Records Act. The foundation is a nonprofit group that raises money to support the university; it also receives operating funds from UNM.
State District Judge Nancy Franchini ordered the group to release the documents last year, but the foundation has appealed the decision, arguing that it’s a private organization and has a duty to protect donors’ privacy.
Franchini ruled in May that the foundation acts on behalf of a public entity and is subject to the state records law.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Albuquerque, is aimed at getting rid of any ambiguity and would require that organizations that exist only to provide money or property to a public agency are subject to the state Inspection of Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act.
“Recent events have demonstrated the perils of opaque foundations enmeshed with public institutions,” Akhil said. “It is critical that foundations that exist solely to serve the interests of public institutions meet the basic minimum standards of transparency and openness. This bill will take steps to prevent future financial negligence like what occurred at UNM Athletics.”
Libit, whose website has been the first to report on several UNM scandals, said he supports the bill, which was introduced Thursday.
“While I firmly believe that the IPRA law already requires entities such as the UNM Foundation to comply with public record requests,” he said, “I support any legislative efforts that would incapacitate such organizations from playing willfully ignorant on the matter.”
The university’s financial leadership and practices have come under scrutiny in recent years.
The UNM Foundation in 2017 took a $25,000 donation from then-UNM Athletics Director Paul Krebs meant to repay the university for the public money spent on private individuals who attended an infamous Lobo athletics golf junket to Scotland.
Krebs – who had organized the trip – heralded it as an “anonymous” gift, and foundation officials closely guarded the donor’s identity.
According to court documents, top foundation executives refused to reveal the donation’s source to Balderas’ investigators and gave contradicting stories about it. That prompted the Attorney General’s Office to search the foundation’s headquarters last fall.
Earlier this month, Balderas’ office cited the donation – and the efforts to keep the details a secret – in charging Krebs with five felonies, including fraud and money laundering.
Also introduced Thursday was House Bill 26, sponsored by Rep. Bill Pratt, D-Albuquerque. It would allow custodians of public records to charge a fee for the actual cost of copying public records requested under the state records law, but the fee couldn’t exceed 10 cents a page or $10 for an electronic storage device, such as a CD or flash drive.
“Records are only public if they are affordable to the public,” Pratt said.
The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government credited Balderas for his strong support of the two bills.
“We appreciate the attorney general’s efforts to eliminate outrageous costs for paper copies and electronic records and record searches,” said Melanie Majors, executive director of the group. “These bills also make it very clear that entities that operate on behalf of public agencies must allow all of their records to be open for inspection.”
Meanwhile, there are also proposals in the Legislature that would allow public agencies to charge more for public records and that would allow them to shield more records from public view. They include:
• Senate Bill 442, sponsored by Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, would allow fees of up to $1 a page even for electronic records, rather than the actual cost of the storage device.
• Senate Bill 259, sponsored by Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, would allow governments to keep secret the identities of most applicants for public jobs, except in narrow circumstances.
• Senate Bill 232 would give government agencies up to 45 days to respond to requests for public records that they deem excessively burdensome and broad, and allow them to ask a judge to grant more time. An early version of the bill was sponsored by Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, but no sponsor is listed on the latest version.
Journal staff writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this article.