SANTA FE, N.M. — An Albuquerque Public Schools lobbyist alleged in a letter to Gov. Susana Martinez that Chief of Staff Keith Gardner painfully gripped her arm and yelled at her in “in an extremely threatening manner,” during the legislative session in February.
Gardner told the Journal on Monday he never grabbed Carrie Menapace’s arm or treated her aggressively, and points to surveillance video from the Roundhouse as proof.
Menapace, a policy analyst and government liaison for APS, wrote that Gardner approached her during a recess of the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 12 as it was considering a bill to retain third-graders who cannot pass a grade-level reading test. That bill has been championed by Martinez and opposed by APS.
Menapace, in the letter dated Feb. 24 on APS stationery, said Gardner walked up behind her as they were in the hall, grabbed her arm to turn her around and continued to painfully hold her arm. He then, “in an extremely threatening manner,” yelled that APS Superintendent Winston Brooks should be aware that “the bowels of hell were about to open up upon him” if he didn’t stop opposing Martinez’s education bills, the letter said.
“I now understand that Mr. Gardner’s physical touching in a manner to intimidate me may actually be a criminal offense,” the letter said. It asked for a meeting and went on to say she hoped they could “resolve this amicably and continue to work together for the best interests of New Mexico children in the future.”
“The only witness without any political agenda whatsoever is that video,” Gardner said.
The video, which was provided by the Governor’s Office, is grainy and continually pans back and forth. It appears to show Gardner approaching Menapace, and shows that at one time he has his arm outstretched toward her.
She said in an interview last week she stands behind the letter, and that everything happened the way she wrote it.
Tom Sullivan, who formerly headed the state superintendents’ association, witnessed the encounter and corroborated Menapace’s story.
“He grabbed Carrie by the arm, in the elbow area as I recall, and kind of spun her toward him to get her attention,” Sullivan said, adding that he didn’t remember exactly what Gardner said but that it was along the lines of, “Tell your superintendent to keep his mouth shut.”
Sullivan said there was no discussion of the incident after it happened, but that they looked at each other in shock.
As soon as Menapace reported the alleged incident to APS, two district police officers went up to the Roundhouse and watched the video. Both said Monday they believe the video neither proves nor disproves the incident happened, because it was low-quality and continually panning.
Gardner contends the video shows he was only near Menapace for about eight seconds, and that the confrontation she described in the letter could not have happened in that amount of time.
Menapace said that during the confrontation she told Gardner she works for Brooks and was following his orders, and Gardner responded that as Brooks’ legislative liaison, it was her obligation to give Brooks his message. Menapace said Brooks knew the governor was upset, but that she would tell him again, according to the letter.
Brooks, in a recent interview, backed Menapace and said he was “appalled” that Gardner was denying the incident happened.
The video actually shows a series of still pictures, not a continuous video.
Raúl Burciaga, director of Legislative Council Service, oversees security cameras in the Roundhouse. He said the camera system has been improved since February, but at the time of the incident, stored videos were compressed into stills to take up less space.
Gardner said it is “very clear” upon viewing the video that each frame represents about one second, based on the amount of time it takes people to walk from place to place.
The video does not have a time stamp, which Burciaga said is normal for a copy of Roundhouse surveillance video. The video does have a time stamp when seen on capitol security equipment, but not once a copy is made, he said.
According to Menapace’s letter, Gardner had an “altercation” with Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque, right before the incident with Menapace. Gardner, according to the letter, “cornered” Park and yelled at him for several minutes regarding the mandatory retention bill.
The video shows Gardner talking to Park before the incident, but Park said last week he has never felt cornered or threatened by Gardner.
“I like Keith; Keith’s a personal friend,” Park said. “We have a very good relationship, and we have very frank and honest conversations. Keith and I are both passionate, but I was never cornered. Never once in my entire life have I ever felt in physical fear of Keith Gardner, but I remember us having multiple, passionate conversations.”
Gardner said the discrepancy between how Menapace described the Park encounter and Park’s account calls the whole letter into question.
“If one of them isn’t an accurate depiction, why would any of the others be?” Gardner said.
Menapace in her letter also said she and APS attorney Art Melendres were at Rio Chama with Rep. Jim Smith later that evening when Gardner saw her and asked if she had delivered the message to Brooks. She said she had.
Melendres declined to comment on the incident.
Smith said in an interview that he does not remember Menapace mentioning an altercation with Gardner.
The letter described three other encounters between Menapace and Gardner, in which she alleges Gardner told her in an “aggressive, threatening manner” that she needed to tell Brooks to stop opposing Martinez’s agenda.
Email records show Menapace first wrote to Gardner on Feb. 20, which was the Monday after the session ended. Her email did not include the allegations, but simply said that she, Brooks and Melendres would like to meet with Gardner “to discuss several issues that occurred during the 2012 legislative session.”
When Gardner had not responded by the end of the week, Menapace sent the detailed letter to Martinez and also copied it to Gardner, Brooks and Melendres.
Menapace said she worked with a private attorney to draft the letter, but she has not filed any charges or a lawsuit. She did not make the letter public, but she did respond to questions after the Journal obtained it from the Governor’s Office after submitting a public records request for it.
“I obviously did not pursue further action afterward,” she said. “I have moved on from it, and I never really wanted it to be a circus to begin with.”
Menapace, Gardner, Brooks and Melendres met the week after the Feb. 24 letter.
Menapace said her goal for the meeting was to tell Gardner the alleged incident was unacceptable and it must not happen again.
Gardner has been under scrutiny in recent months, after the release of a secretly recorded personal conversation in which he called Senate Democratic leader Tim Jennings a string of vulgar names and used an expletive to describe the manager of Expo New Mexico.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal