An attorney for three former New Mexico State Police officers who settled discrimination and retaliation claims against the New Mexico Department of Public Safety and its former State Police chief said Thursday that they are seeking to be released from an unusual confidentiality agreement enforced by the state that seals the details of the settlement until 2023.
As first reported by the Albuquerque television station KRQE-TV this week, $1.7 million in settlements were reached at the end of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration before she left office Dec. 31.
Martinez has denied involvement in the agreements, according to The Associated Press.
One of the settled lawsuits alleged that former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas was engaged in “blatant, ongoing and systematic discrimination,” and the details of the settlement were sealed after mediation in December. Kassetas, who resigned when Martinez left office, has denied the allegations.
“We want transparency, and we want to be released from the confidentiality provisions so that our clients can tell their side of the story and that they are victims of Mr. Kassetas’ harassment and the complaints filed are meritorious,” Santa Fe attorney Diane Garrity told the Journal late Thursday. “We do not believe there should be any confidentiality clauses for any settlements involving sexual harassment cases.”
Garrity represented former State Police Sgt. Monica Martinez-Jones, retired Lt. Julia Armendariz and retired Deputy Chief Michael Ryan Suggs, who filed the lawsuit last June. Martinez-Jones is now with another law enforcement agency, Garrity said. Armendariz was at one time assigned to Gov. Martinez’s security detail.
The television report also said other legal claims involving Kassetas were settled at year’s end.
Under state law, the amounts and details of settlements of lawsuits by the Risk Management Division of the state General Services Department are to be kept confidential for at least 180 days or until the statute of limitations ends.
State Attorney General Hector Balderas said through a spokesman Thursday, “I am very concerned that the previous administration may have allowed these documents to be sealed well beyond the legal standard. Any documents alleging government corruption should be transparent to the public.”
News of the payouts prompted the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday to announce it was reviewing policies and procedures regarding such agreements.
“This is a troubling story – & unfortunately all too characteristic of the mess left to us by the prior administration,” Lujan Grisham said in a tweet. “I expect, & New Mexicans deserve, nothing less than thorough, factual & consistent investigations when claims are made against the state.”
The lawsuit filed by Garrity alleged discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation and contended the three former officers were retaliated against for whistleblower activities.
Kassetas was alleged to have described his employees as “dumb (expletive) bitches” and once sent an image of a man’s testicles blocking out the sun to a deputy secretary at DPS. The lawsuit also contended he “mooned” other State Police officers.
He has complained that plaintiffs’ lawyers were trying to “extort” money from the state.
The television report, which mentioned other DPS settlements late last year, led to the Republican Party of New Mexico issuing a news release Thursday that said, “In order to create and maintain transparency, we call upon our state government leaders, that include the Governor and the Attorney General, to take action to unseal these secret agreements.”
“New Mexico has a long and troubling history of public corruption and secret deals like the ones we are hearing about this week only make our state’s reputation worse and prevents us from achieving our full potential. Regardless of which party is in power, we must enforce our public record laws and be willing to have a conversation about which laws need to be improved in order to allow the sunshine in for our state.”
At least two other lawsuits filed by former State Police officers are pending in state District Court.
The litigation over the past year involving the State Police has been focused in part on the role of State Police officers on the governor’s security force and their knowledge of details about her personal life.
The lawsuit Garrity filed revealed a 2015 settlement in which the state paid $200,000 to Ruben Maynes, a State Police officer on the governor’s security detail. Maynes never filed a lawsuit. He was paid just two months after his attorney, Sam Bregman, wrote a letter to then-Gov. Martinez and Kassetas that he was “in the process of investigating claims” Maynes made against the governor and NMSP for “whistleblowing, harassment and retaliation.”
According to KRQE’s report and the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, critics have suggested the legal cases were settled quickly out of fear that such information about the governor might be made public.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that former Risk Management Director Lara White Davis was responsible for approving the settlements. She had no comment on the cases settled late in the Martinez administration.
Martinez said in a written statement issued to KRQE that she “did not encourage, influence or become involved” in any of the settlements.
She wrote that the security detail for any governor is necessarily present for some of the most private experiences. She pointed to the deaths of her father and brother, her sister’s health episodes and hospitalizations, as well as personal disagreements within a marriage.
“It would be deeply disappointing if someone on the security detail chose to catalog that personal information for their own benefit,” Martinez wrote.