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Editorial: NM needs answers on disappeared settlement files

When a government agency dishes out more than a half-million dollars to settle a discrimination claim by former employees, that agency owes taxpayers a little more explanation about that payout than what fits on a memo line.

It’s not just the right thing to do. Here in New Mexico, it’s state law.

Yet as Journal reporter Colleen Heild wrote Aug. 4, little more than a copy of the check remains in the state’s records documenting the $650,000 payout the state made to five female administrators from the Department of Finance and Administration who threatened to sue over alleged workplace discrimination and mistreatment by their supervisors.

As Heild reported, the state cut the check in 2014 to head off a lawsuit threatened by five women against top DFA officials and then-Gov. Susana Martinez over the allegations.

While the law requires the state to keep records that show what was alleged and against whom, records relating to this particular secret settlement are just gone – all except a check cut to the women’s lawyer and five 12-page settlement agreements that simply allude to the all-descriptive “draft complaint.”

We know what the draft complaint says because the women’s attorney provided it after being released from a confidentiality agreement demanded by the Martinez administration. But it should have been in the state’s file.

It’s clear that there’s only so much that can be done by the people left holding the bag today – like recently appointed General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz, who oversees the state Risk Management department, which handles suits against the state.

“All we’re aware of and all we can provide you is what’s contained in the file,” Ortiz is quoted as saying.

But that doesn’t mean nobody should have to answer the outstanding questions, including: Were the missing documents lost? Misplaced? Intentionally and illegally removed?

And how widespread is the problem? Ortiz said his team has come across “other scenarios like this” since taking over his post earlier this year.

That’s a concerning statement to say the least.

It’s hard to know where to begin to look for what’s missing, especially in light of the former administration’s penchant for secrecy via long-lasting confidentiality agreements. And while the press has and will continue to play an important role in shedding light on secret payouts and covered-up potential scandals, it’s time someone in an official capacity – like State Auditor Brian Colón or Attorney General Hector Balderas – took a look.

It’s time for the secrecy to stop.

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.

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