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Secrecy veil lifted on DPS lawsuits

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has agreed not to enforce the terms of an unusual settlement of discrimination and claims against the state Department of Public Safety and then-New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas that required confidentiality until 2023.

Former New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Both Kassetas and two plaintiffs’ attorneys lauded the governor’s decision on Tuesday, which effectively allows all sides to discuss the underlying litigation.

However, the amounts paid to the group of DPS and State Police employees who sued or filed claims remain confidential as required by law for six months from the time of settlements late last year. That means the totals would be released in late June or July – not four years from now as required in the confidential settlement agreements reached between the plaintiffs and the state’s Risk Management Division at the end of Gov. Susana Martinez’s term.

The decision by Lujan Grisham marked another twist in an emerging tawdry story that dates back at least to 2015, when a former State Police officer in the governor’s security detail who was accused of owing gambling debts received a $200,000 settlement. The settlement from the state came just two months after his attorney wrote a letter to Kassetas and Martinez.

A report from KRQE-TV on May 21 contended that the Martinez administration rushed settlements in a more recent spate of claims to keep embarrassing or personal information about Martinez from becoming public. Martinez has denied any involvement in the settlements, according to The Associated Press.

The KRQE-TV report put the total amount paid at $1.7 million, but it isn’t clear how many claims by DPS or State Police employees are involved.

“Certain of these settlements included provisions that precluded the plaintiffs from discussing the underlying facts of their cases, which is unusual. The Governor’s Office simply expressed that the state will not be enforcing the provisions of the settlements that precluded the plaintiffs from discussing the underlying facts. The plaintiffs are free to speak about the underlying facts of their cases,” Nora Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, told the Journal.

Later, Sackett added in an email, “Although state statute is subject to different interpretations, we intend to err on the side of transparency. After 180 days from the date the settlements were entered into, we plan to make them available for inspection.”

Open government groups, the state attorney general and the state Republican Party, among others, were objecting to the four-year secrecy deal and questioning its basis in law.

Under state law, settlements are to remain secret for 180 days or the date all statutes of limitation applicable to the claim have run.

“We thank Governor Lujan Grisham for releasing us from that confidentiality clause and allowing us to speak our truth,” Santa Fe attorneys Diane Garrity and Linda Hemphill said in a statement Tuesday.

They filed suit against Kassetas and DPS last June on behalf of three State Police supervisors, including a former member of Martinez’s State Police security detail, who accused Kassetas in a lawsuit filed last June of “blatant, ongoing and systematic discrimination.”

The plaintiffs, described in the statement as “whistleblowers,” were former Sgt. Monica Martinez-Jones, former Lt. Julia Armendariz and former Deputy Chief Michael Ryan Suggs.

Their lawsuit alleged Kassetas’ inappropriate behavior included an incident in which he “mooned” his employees. Another time, he allegedly sent an image of a man’s testicles blocking out the sun to a deputy cabinet secretary at DPS.

The attorneys sought to be allowed to speak publicly after Kassetas appeared in the May 21 KRQE-TV report, criticizing the fact the claims were settled. The report mentioned a Dec. 21 email Kassetas wrote to Martinez and others in which he said the demands by plaintiffs’ lawyers constituted extortion – an accusation Garrity and Hemphill vehemently disputed.

In their media release Tuesday, Garrity and Hemphill said Kassetas’ statements were “inaccurate” and violated “the confidentiality provisions of our settlement agreement, knowing we could not defend ourselves.”

Claims brought by at least three other DPS employees, including former deputy cabinet secretary Amy Orlando, were also part of the settled litigation last year. Allegra Carpenter, the attorney for Orlando and the other two plaintiffs, didn’t return a Journal request for comment Tuesday.

Kassetas, who was hired by Martinez in 2013, told the Journal that he never signed or saw the settlement agreements.

“I’m for releasing everything,” Kassetas said. “I wanted complete transparency.” He said the allegations in the lawsuits and claims are “baseless.”

Stand by allegations

Garrity and Hemphill said they “stand by the compelling factual allegations contained in our lawsuit.”

Their lawsuit referred to the state’s decision to settle with former State Police officer Ruben Maynes, who at one time served on Martinez’s security detail. Maynes received a $200,000 settlement from the state in April 2015.

Maynes, according to other lawsuits, had a gambling problem and owed Martinez and other State Police officers money they had loaned him to pay off the debts. The settlement agreement prevented Maynes from discussing the details of his claims or his settlement and set a $50,000 liquidated damages assessment for any unauthorized disclosure.

Under the settlement, Maynes also agreed to “satisfy any outstanding financial obligations to other State Police officers.”

The lawsuit filed by the three State Police supervisors, alleged, in part that, “according to a top-level administrator at DPS who wishes to remain anonymous, it is Kassetas’ knowledge about the Governor’s secrets, in general, and the Maynes situation, in particular, that has kept the Governor from allowing DPS to take disciplinary action against him (Kassetas).”

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