Ammunition for both sides - Albuquerque Journal

Ammunition for both sides

Gov. Susana Martinez, right, takes her oath of office for a second term on Jan. 1, 2015, with her husband, Chuck Franco, holding the Bible. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A year ago this month, the former top female official at the state Department of Public Safety joined two other women in a state Human Rights Bureau complaint alleging gender and age discrimination and retaliation by DPS and officials who included then-New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas.

With weeks to go in the Martinez administration, attorneys for the three women followed up with a Nov. 28 letter to Gov. Susana Martinez and others that added another explosive charge: “We are also in the possession of sensitive evidence that explains why Chief Kassetas’ illegal misconduct was never addressed by the Governor.”

The “sensitive evidence” turned out to be a secretly recorded phone conversation of Martinez’s husband, Chuck Franco, making accusations about his wife and others, said attorneys in the case. The recording had been made at least two years earlier by Martinez’s security detail member, then-Sgt. Julia Armendariz, allegedly at the governor’s insistence.

The recording is “not something anybody wants out,” said Amy Orlando, who filed her discrimination claim after being reassigned from DPS in July 2018.

Orlando, a longtime friend of Martinez, and five other DPS or State Police managers or officials came forward in 2018 with allegations against Kassetas, State Police and/or the DPS cabinet secretary in two separate cases.

And by year’s end, attorneys for DPS agreed to pay a total of $2 million in settlements in exchange for dismissal of all the claims. The settlements also required the parties to keep quiet about the deals until at least 2022.

“Their only goal was to protect the governor at all costs,” said former New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas.

But Kassetas went public with his criticism of the settlements earlier this year, and incoming Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham opted not to enforce the gag order on the parties beyond the 180-day minimum set by state law.

News of the settlements spurred the State Auditor’s Office to launch an inquiry, which is pending.

Today, there is no consensus as to what role, if any, the secret recording played in the state’s decision to settle the cases with the unusually long period of confidentiality imposed.

But records and interviews show the governor’s alleged “secrets” served as ammunition for both sides.

Those who sued and filed complaints alleged Martinez and her administration ignored Kassetas’ discriminatory conduct and failed to discipline or fire him because he held the governor’s “secrets” over her and was therefore untouchable.

The DPS employees contended in part that for years Kassetas sexually harassed and passed up qualified women for promotion and retaliated against those who subsequently complained.

The reason “they tolerated this bozo (Kassetas) is because he had goods on the alleged conduct of the governor and it’s a relevant fact,” said Allegra Carpenter, an attorney for Orlando and two other female managers who filed discrimination complaints.

Carpenter said the recording had nothing to do with the settlements but may have been relevant, if protected from public disclosure, if the claims proceeded to court.

Kassetas, who retired Dec. 31, insisted the discrimination and retaliation charges were unfounded and that internal investigations cleared him.

“I believe that recording was used like a scalpel … systematically used in a way that was very calculated … to achieve the biggest payout possible in a very short period of time,” he said.

Of those who defended the state, Kassetas said, “Their only goal was to protect the governor at all costs.”

Martinez, who has moved to Albuquerque, didn’t respond to Journal phone calls or to a letter seeking comment. Franco couldn’t be reached for comment.

General Services Cabinet Secretary Ken Ortiz, told the Journal, “The decision-making surrounding these settlements was entirely a work product of the Martinez administration. It would be inappropriate for this administration to comment on decisions made by the prior administration. Questions about the factors that led to the decisions to settle those cases would be best directed to the people who made those decisions.”

Lawyers for DPS and Kassetas declined to comment.

Meanwhile, DPS and Kassetas are involved in two other whistleblower lawsuits, including one filed by another former member of Martinez’s security detail.

Elusive recording

It’s unclear where the original recording of the then-governor’s husband is or how many copies exist.

State Risk Management, in responding to a Journal public records request, couldn’t locate the recording.

Armendariz recorded the call sometime during the three years she served on Martinez’s State Police security detail. She joined Sgt. Monica Martinez-Jones and former State Police Deputy Chief Ryan Suggs in filing the discrimination lawsuit in June 2018 after she was removed from the detail in 2016.

Her Santa Fe attorney Diane Garrity said Armendariz had utmost respect for Martinez and “would have taken a bullet for the governor.” Armendariz blamed Kassetas for her ouster, but Kassetas said the move was the governor’s call.

The lawsuit, which alleged blatant, systematic discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, was set for mediation in mid-December. Typically, both sides produce evidence of their claims beforehand.

“Days before the mediation occurred, we received an email from defense lawyers asking us if we had any recordings,” Garrity said, “and our clients then reviewed the information they had in their possession.”

Until the state made its request, the recording had been long forgotten by Armendariz, Garrity said. A thumb drive of the recording was then turned over to DPS attorneys, she said.

Garrity told the Journal the mediation of their case on Dec. 11-12 centered on the egregious case against Kassetas. The recording wasn’t even mentioned, she added.

But Kassetas said he was in another room with DPS attorneys at the time when the mediator, attorney Phil Davis, came in and said, “They’ve got a tape. They’ve got a recording.” But the recording was never played, Kassetas said. Davis declined to comment when reached by the Journal on Friday, noting that mediations are confidential.

In the Orlando case, the claimants had “mountains of evidence proving multiple acts of harassment, discrimination and retaliation,” said her attorney Carpenter in a press release last summer. Along with Orlando, the claimants included Terri Thornberry, former DPS communications manager, and Dianna DeJarnette, former head of DPS Human Resources.

“I couldn’t figure out what they were scaring her (the governor) with,” said former deputy DPS cabinet secretary Amy Orlando.

Orlando said she was unfairly blamed by the governor’s office for the filing of the earlier Armendariz lawsuit, because she is friends with Armendariz and Suggs. She alleged her subsequent forced transfer to the state Department of Corrections was retaliation.

Orlando said she became friends with Martinez after they worked as prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces in the 1990s. While working at DPS, Orlando said she spoke with the governor about removing Kassetas as State Police chief because of his conduct and treatment of women, but nothing changed.

“I couldn’t figure out what they were scaring her with,” Orlando told the Journal.

Then came the discovery of the cellphone recording of an upset Franco, which was recorded legally by Armendariz, said Orlando. “They (the security detail members) were investigating an incident that happened … into a possible domestic relations situation,” Orlando told the Journal. “It turned out to be nothing and everything smoothed out in a few days.”

Attorney Carpenter said the recording wasn’t used as “leverage” to obtain the $1 million settlement for her clients.

“It was used to say, ‘here’s our claim. Here’s all the reasons the state is liable under the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Human Rights Act … and here’s all our damages. And in addition to that, we just discovered the reason why the state did all of this and that’s the fact that would probably go to punitive damages,’ I think is how we characterized this.”

Had the claims proceeded to court, Carpenter said her clients would have immediately asked a judge for an in-chambers meeting for an order to ensure the recording was treated “as evidence that is relevant to the case but that needs to be treated very sensitively. It doesn’t need to be shared with everybody.”

Kassetas told the Journal he never knew about the recorded phone call until the mediation and has never listened to it.

“Julia (Armendariz) reported directly to me. She never made me aware of the secret recording,” Kassetas said. “Look, if I knew about it two years ago, shame on me, I would be completely a part of this mess. It’s a soap opera.”

While denying the claims of discrimination and retaliation, Kassetas confirmed two allegations in the lawsuit filed by Garrity’s clients.

He admits he made mistakes. He sent Orlando a text on the lunar eclipse in 2017 of a man’s testicles blocking the sun. The lawsuit also alleged that after a work meeting in Ruidoso, he had been drinking and “mooned” a group of staff members.

“This isn’t a pity party about Pete Kassetas, and I won’t go into the reality of what it’s done to my life. It’s been tainted by, one, my actions, which I get,” he said. “But I can’t sleep at night knowing people got money from the taxpayers. It keeps me up, because of lies that were built around the governor’s personal relationships and I got hooked into it.”

Settlement details

State Risk Management records obtained by the Journal provide other details related to the settlements.

They include:

• An invoice from a private attorney for DPS seeking payment to “analyze eight email correspondence from Merit Bennett regarding demands for blackmail information.” Bennett was one of the attorneys representing the Orlando claimants. A week before the mediation in that case, on Dec. 20, he asked the defense to produce information about the governor’s personal life that might be known to Kassetas or others accused in the case. Bennett told the Journal his request was proper but the state produced no such information.

• Invoices showing the Martinez administration hired attorney Rob Doughty to work on the DPS cases “in an advisor/strategy capacity.” A Martinez ally, Doughty was a contract lawyer for state Risk Management and was president of the University of New Mexico Board of Regents. Weeks after Martinez left office, Doughty was contacted by an attorney for DPS “regarding confidentiality provisions” of the settlements, the DPS attorney’s invoice shows.

• A document from Orlando asking that her November 2018 complaint to the Human Rights Bureau be sent to mediation. A response on Dec. 10 from the state Department of Workforce Solutions informed her that her discrimination complaint would be investigated instead. It’s unclear if an investigation ensued.

Under the settlements, Orlando was paid $300,000, Thornberry $400,000 and DeJarnette, $300,000.

In the Armendariz lawsuit, the three plaintiffs split $900,000 along with a related $100,000 payout to dismiss a related public records lawsuit.

Harassment claims

It was the Armendariz lawsuit that revealed the state paid $200,000 in April 2015 to former governor’s security detail member Ruben Maynes and his wife, Donna, an executive assistant in Martinez’s office.

The Maynes settlement came just two months after his attorney Sam Bregman put the state on notice that Maynes had claims of harassment and retaliation against Martinez and State Police and asked all electronic messages involving him to be retained. Bregman couldn’t be reached for comment last week.

Maynes and his wife are bound to confidentiality under the terms of the deal, which required they pay a $50,000 penalty for any unauthorized disclosure.

Six months before the settlement, Maynes had been caught gambling at a casino when he had promised he would stop, Kassetas told the Journal. Kassetas said he told Maynes he was facing an Internal Affairs investigation and a transfer out of the governor’s security detail to work State Police patrol.

“I told him, ‘you cannot gamble, we’ve already got problems and you still owe people money.’ And he (Maynes) holds up his (cell) phone and said, ‘Chief, you’re going to want to see the texts on here.’ ”

Kassetas said he refused to look at them. But given rumors about a close relationship between Maynes and the governor, Kassetas said, “I knew they weren’t about the weather.”

With 26 years in law enforcement, Kassetas said, “I’ve been in the game a long time. I knew if I looked at those that I would somehow probably be dissuaded to do the right thing, to basically move him from the (security detail). Then he would have had the power over me.”

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