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Settlement payments made by governor’s campaign reverberate

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham faced political turbulence Tuesday after a report filed with New Mexico’s top elections officer showed the governor’s campaign paid at least $62,500 as part of a settlement agreement with a former staffer who had accused her of sexual mistreatment.

The Republican Governors Association, among other groups, seized on the payments and said they indicated at least some truth to the allegations made by James Hallinan, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham during her 2018 general election campaign.

However, the governor’s campaign continued to deny Hallinan’s allegations, describing them Tuesday as “baseless and false” and saying the settlement agreement was reached to avoid the distraction and cost of litigation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And a spokesman for Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office said Tuesday that the five payments of $12,500 were an allowable expenditure under the state’s campaign finance laws.

“Since this was an employment dispute with a campaign staffer, and the dispute was related to his time with the campaign, it’s acceptable to use campaign funds for those expenses,” Secretary of State’s office spokesman Alex Curtas said.

The five monthly payments of $12,500 were outlined in a campaign finance report filed late Monday by the first-term Democratic governor’s campaign.

They were listed as legal expenses and were made to an Atlanta law firm that represents Hallinan.

Although a civil lawsuit was never technically filed, a Lujan Grisham campaign spokesman said Monday that the payments were part of a settlement resolving “numerous dubious and disputed potential claims” made by Hallinan, including issues regarding his search for employment after the 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

The settlement agreement was entered by Lujan Grisham, Hallinan, the governor’s campaign organization and Dominic Gabello, Lujan Grisham’s former campaign manager who now works as a senior adviser in the Governor’s Office, according to the campaign.

Hallinan, who now runs his own communications company, accused Lujan Grisham in late 2019 – about a year after he left the campaign – of pouring a bottle of water on his crotch and then grabbing his crotch through his clothes as she laughed, an incident he said took place in front of other campaign staffers.

In response, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman described the allegations as bizarre, slanderous and false, adding that the other staffers present during the campaign meeting referenced by Hallinan all maintained the alleged wrongdoing didn’t occur.

But the resurfacing of the allegations via the payments, which were first reported by the Journal, could give ammunition to Lujan Grisham’s potential GOP rivals with her 2022 reelection campaign on the horizon.

“$62,500 is a lot of money for a sexual harassment scandal that Lujan Grisham originally called ‘bizarre,’ ‘slanderous’ and ‘categorically false,’ ” RGA spokesman Will Reinert said in a Tuesday statement. “The payments certainly suggest that there must be some truth to the story, and Governor Lujan Grisham should publicly apologize to her victim for her behavior.”

Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman who is the chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association, was considered for a Cabinet position in President Joe Biden’s administration.

She recently called sexual harassment allegations against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo troubling but stopped short of calling on him to resign.

A spokesman for her campaign on Tuesday described the Republican criticism as being inaccurate and lacking credibility.

“We reached a settlement to avoid the distraction and legal expense of an ongoing dispute during COVID,” said Lujan Grisham campaign spokesman Jared Leopold.

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