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Senate approves settlement transparency bill

A bill that would remove a waiting period for state settlement agreements to be made publicly available passed the Senate on Saturday via a 38-0 vote. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill that would scrap a waiting period for settlement agreements involving New Mexico state agencies – or state officials – to be made public is advancing at the Roundhouse.

The Senate voted 38-0 on Saturday to approve the legislation, Senate Bill 64, which would also remove an existing penalty for those who break confidentiality provisions.

This year’s proposal has moved forward after revelations that officials in former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration approved legal settlements with lengthy gag orders during the final weeks of 2018, Martinez’s final year in office.

“We have to legislate to bad behaviors,” said Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, during Saturday’s floor debate. “There are those individuals that find a way to get around these things.”

State law currently requires that settlement records be kept confidential for at least 180 days but gives several other time periods for release, such as when a case is closed, or when the statute of limitations for such claims has expired.

That 180-day waiting period would be eliminated under the bill approved Saturday. Instead, it calls for settlement agreements to be made available to the public once they’re signed by the parties involved or upon a final judgement resolving the claims, whatever comes first.

Under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration, the state General Services Department started publicly listing settlement agreements last summer. But the bill would not mandate such public disclosure, meaning the practice could be discontinued in the future.

“I think it’s very important that taxpayers know how the state’s business is done,” General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz told reporters after Saturday’s vote.

Meanwhile, some senators said they were outraged by the secret settlement agreements approved by former Risk Management Division officials under the Martinez administration.

“There was a fraud perpetrated on New Mexico taxpayers at the end of the last administration,” said Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. “The worst part of all this is they tried to hide it.”

A special audit commissioned last year by State Auditor Brian Colón’s office identified $2.7 million in fast-tracked legal settlements that were kept secret under confidentiality agreements.

Colón’s office forwarded the findings to the state Attorney General’s Office and the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Santa Fe for review, but no formal actions have been taken by prosecutors to date.

Settlements identified by the state Auditor’s Office included roughly $2 million in agreements that resolved gender and age discrimination complaints – along with retaliation claims – that had been filed against then-State Police Chief Pete Kassetas and other top Martinez administration officials.

Kassetas, who retired at the end of 2018, has criticized the settlements, saying the charges against him were unfounded and that internal investigations cleared him.

Martinez has also said she was not involved in the settlement agreements.

The bill approved Saturday is co-sponsored by Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, Rue and others. It now advances to the House with less than two weeks left in the 30-day legislative session.

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