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NM paid $1M to settle three charges of sexual harassment

Former New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.

Former New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

One of two major settlements reached in December involving sexual harassment and retaliation claims against top officials of the state Department of Public Safety became public Tuesday, showing a $1 million payout to a former DPS deputy Cabinet secretary and two other female administrators.

The sexual harassment alleged included a text of a photo of a man’s testicles eclipsing the sun in 2017 on the day of a lunar eclipse.

The settlement records were released by the state Risk Management Division after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham opted not to enforce the original lengthy term of secrecy required by the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, whose term ended Dec. 31.

Had Lujan Grisham not intervened, taxpayers might have had to wait until December 2022 to learn the settlement amounts paid and the nature of the claims brought by former deputy Cabinet secretary Amy Orlando, communications supervisor Terri Thornberry, and DPS director of human resources Dianna DeJarnette.

State law allows state Risk Management to release such records after a minimum of 180 days, but some settlements negotiated by the Martinez administration extended the confidentiality period to the latest date allowed by law, typically years, a Journal review of state records shows. The parties themselves were also bound to secrecy.

In the DPS case unsealed Tuesday, Orlando and Thornberry contended that then-New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas was a key perpetrator of a hostile work environment that especially harmed female supervisors at the agency. They and DeJarnette also named DPS Secretary Scott Weaver in their claims, the settlement records show.

“The only way to stop harassment from happening in the workplace is to report it and have it investigated,” said Albuquerque lawyer Allegra Carpenter, who represented the three women, along with attorney Erika Anderson. “When these many claimants did so after suffering harassment and discrimination by former Chief Kassetas, they were retaliated against and ultimately lost their jobs, their professional status, and were facing severe hardship and uncertainty trying to put their lives back together.”

The settlement agreements show the women received the payments for “damages” and “emotional distress.”

No lawsuit was filed. Instead, their settlements were reached six weeks after they each filed complaints in November 2018 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Human Rights Bureau. Orlando and DeJarnette each received $300,000, and Thornberry was paid $400,000.

Kassetas, who retired Dec. 31, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, and Weaver didn’t return a Journal request for comment.

Paula Maynes, a Santa Fe attorney who defended the state, said Tuesday she wasn’t able to comment because of attorney-client privilege and the confidentiality required by the mediation that led to the settlement.

In another settlement expected to be unsealed by state officials later this month, Kassetas was sued in June 2018 by three current and former State Police supervisors, including a male deputy chief, for retaliation and discrimination.

Police chief’s denial

“From the beginning of this ordeal I took the position the claims made against me were false and defendable and I still believe that to this very day,” Kassetas said Tuesday. “Not a single female officer on the State Police has come forward verifying the claims made against me because they did not happen.”

Orlando went to work for Martinez’s administration in 2013 at the state Children, Youth and Families Department, and in 2014 she joined DPS as its general counsel and later became deputy secretary.

She and Martinez had been friends going back to their days at the District Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces more than 20 years ago.

According to her complaint to the state Human Rights Bureau, Orlando said she was retaliated against for trying to protect women at DPS who suffered discrimination and harassment. Two of the women were Thornberry and DeJarnette, her complaint to the Human Rights Bureau said.

Her claims of sexual harassment against Kassetas included his texting her from his work cellphone the photo of a man’s genitals on the day of a lunar eclipse.

Orlando said she was “demoted” last summer when she was transferred from DPS to the state Corrections Department. She left state government last fall.

Terms of gag order

Under terms of the settlement, Weaver, the women, and their attorneys could not publicly discuss the matter until Dec. 29, 2022, when the statute of limitations to bring such claims would expire.

Until then, they were instructed to “say nothing more than the matter was resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties.”

Actions by Kassetas precipitated the early unsealing.

Kassetas was interviewed on a local television news program aired in May complaining that the state should have fought the claims instead of settling out of court.

His comment led attorneys for the former DPS employees to contact state Risk Management officials and the Governor’s Office seeking to be allowed to defend themselves and their clients, who were still bound by the gag order.

Kassetas told the Journal the lengthy confidential term was “unethical and a violation of the law.”

“That very fact should lead the public to question the motives of everyone involved,” Kassetas said. “The system in New Mexico is broken. RMD (Risk Management Division) should never be used as a slush fund to cover up politicians’ misconduct.”

Carpenter told the Journal the state, not the claimants, required the confidentiality agreements.

“We are of course now delighted that MLG (Lujan Grisham) let us out of those,” she added. “We are now actively pursuing legislation that will prohibit such agreements, not only in state settlements, but in all settlements involving sexual harassment/retaliation.”

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