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Kortes’ settlement with state revealed

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Kathy Korte

Over the span of seven months, Kathy Korte, a persistent and outspoken critic of then-Gov. Susana Martinez’s education reforms:

• Was forced to resign from her University of New Mexico Hospital job.

• Saw her husband fired as a Martinez administration public information officer.

• Lost her bid for reelection to the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education after Martinez’s campaign for governor supported Korte’s opponent with a $15,000 campaign contribution.

Susana Martinez

The series of events played out beginning in July 2014, eventually triggering a First Amendment lawsuit and a behind-the-scenes legal claim that both Kathy and Tim Korte had been victims of retaliation for Kathy Korte’s protected political speech.

Newly released records obtained by the Journal show that the New Mexico Risk Management Division agreed to pay the couple a total of $145,000 in August 2015 to drop their claims that UNM regents and Martinez administration officials violated their rights to free speech and free association.

But under terms of the deal, the Kortes were barred from telling anyone how their legal fight was resolved until the day Martinez left office Dec. 31, 2018. The state paid the Kortes in two installments, in 2015 and 2016.

The legal settlement, like several others that have recently come to light, was unusual in the length of confidentiality imposed, and the hefty $50,000 penalty to be assessed if the Kortes revealed the settlement terms before Martinez’s second term as governor ended.

“Both Kathy and Tim were victims of government retaliation. Kathy, because she exercised free speech, and Tim, because he is married to Kathy,” said Phil Davis, their attorney.

The catalyst? A campaign mailer Korte received at her Albuquerque home in June 2014 from then-Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco, on which she wrote Return to Sender “TRAITOR” and “You are not listening.”

Pacheco’s mailer outlined his stance on education – a position with which Korte disagreed.

Kathy Korte posted a photo of the doctored mailing on her Facebook page, only to remove it an hour later because she realized her home address was visible on the photo.

Korte was a fierce and vocal critic of Martinez’s education reform initiatives. In particular, she objected to Martinez’s teacher evaluation system and letter grades for schools.

The Journal published an article about Korte’s Facebook posting on July 9, 2014, prompting Korte to notify her UNMH supervisor about the story that same day.

Up to that point, she had worked as a UNMH community relations specialist for more than a year, dealing with the public and various community groups. Included in her duties was generating “goodwill for an upcoming mill levy” vote for the hospital, according to a lawsuit she filed in November 2014.

The day after the story was published, Korte was told by the UNMH director of employee and labor relations, Ryan Randall, that with the hospital bond issue coming up for a public vote, a “committee of leadership” had met regarding the Journal story and decided to terminate her. Randall also said there was a prior complaint about a post on Twitter.

He told her she could resign or be terminated, and he refused her request to change jobs at UNMH. The lawsuit said she opted to resign, feeling humiliated and embarrassed.

Her lawsuit contends her posting of the Facebook photo of the mailer, showing her comments, was an expression of protected free speech. She contended UNMH knew at the time of her hiring that she was a vocal member of the APS Board of Education, after being elected to a four-year term in 2011.

Two months after she filed the lawsuit in state District Court in Albuquerque, the Martinez administration announced her husband no longer had a job.

Tim Korte, a former reporter with the Associated Press, had served as a public information officer for the state Department of Finance and Administration and the state General Services Department since 2011.

At the time, then-DFA Cabinet Secretary Tom Clifford said Korte wasn’t being terminated because of his wife’s actions. Clifford said there was a “reshuffling” in the administration. He also said Tim Korte’s firing wasn’t based on his performance.

In its response to the First Amendment lawsuit, UNMH argued Kathy Korte’s actions involving the mailer “did not constitute protected speech” and stated the actions were taken “for legitimate, non-retaliatory, business reasons.”

Documents produced by state Risk officials in response to a recent Journal public records request show that after Tim Korte’s firing, Kathy Korte’s attorney Davis sent state Risk Management officials an email on Feb. 11, 2015.

“We have credible evidence that the termination (of Tim Korte) was retaliatory and in violation of his First Amendment right to freely associate based on his marriage to Kathy,” Davis wrote. “Despite his having already applied for 30 jobs, he has no leads.”

“With Mr. and Mrs. Korte now both unemployed, the financial hardship on their family, which includes Tim, Kathy, and their four children, is severe. They have bills, including a mortgage, which they cannot pay,” Davis wrote.

Kathy Korte sought unemployment benefits, but Davis said in the email that the initial decision to award them to her was reversed “such that she owes the state Department of Workforce Solutions money pending her appeal to the district court.”

A district judge later upheld the denial of benefits.

A week later, Ned Fuller, who headed state Risk Management’s litigation bureau, sent Kathy Korte’s attorneys an email stating, “I am still looking into the positive approaches to resolution.”

The settlement reached in August 2015 called for the Kortes to be paid in two installments in 2015 and 2016.

Meanwhile, in February 2015, Kathy Korte was defeated in her bid for the APS District 2 seat by Peggy Muller-Aragón, a retired teacher who won with 63% of the vote.

During the APS election campaign, Gov. Martinez got personally involved in trying to oust Korte by recording an autodial political phone message advocating for Muller-Aragón, the wife of a Martinez ally, Albuquerque lawyer Robert Aragón.

The governor’s message described Korte as beholden to an agenda driven by the teachers union – which contributed $2,500 to Korte’s reelection campaign, secretary of state records show.

The Martinez for Governor campaign contributed $15,000 to Muller-Aragón, records show. Nearly $14,000 went to pay McCleskey Media Strategies, which is run by Martinez’s political consultant Jay McCleskey. Records show the McCleskey firm supplied mailers and “paid walkers” for Muller-Aragón’s campaign.

Martinez couldn’t be reached for comment last week.

The Kortes, through attorney Davis, declined to comment for this story. An internet search shows Kathy Korte went back to school, seeking a master’s degree in public administration at UNM. Tim Korte went on to work as a public information officer for state District Court in Albuquerque and is now a news media contact for the New Mexico Gas Co.