Legislator plans to sue health secretary

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A simmering Roundhouse dispute is escalating, as a Democratic state senator said Tuesday that he was filing a lawsuit accusing New Mexico’s top health official of politically targeting him with a “defamatory” ethics complaint.

Health Secretary Tracie Collins

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said he believes the complaint filed against him during this year’s 60-day legislative session by Health Secretary Tracie Collins was retaliation for a request he had made for email records of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s staffers.

“I’m going to defend myself, my integrity and my family,” Candelaria told the Journal.

The three-term state senator, who has been an outspoken critic of the Democratic governor in recent months, said he ultimately withdrew the records request after top-ranking senators in his party warned him of possible political consequences if he didn’t do so.

He said he had intended to publicly post the requested Governor’s Office email records so that New Mexicans could have a better glimpse into how statewide policies were crafted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He also said the dispute with the governor was not personal, although he acknowledged having strong feelings about her job performance.

“We have our own Andrew Cuomo here,” Candelaria said, referring to the New York governor who has faced allegations of political bullying and other strong-arm tactics.

However, a Governor’s Office spokeswoman disputed Candelaria’s allegations while suggesting they amounted to a personal vendetta.

“No such ‘retaliation’ ever occurred, and it’s troubling that this legislator continues to be seemingly motivated solely by his own personal animus,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said.

The dispute marks a rare – but not unprecedented in New Mexico politics – intraparty clash that’s playing out in public view.

It comes after the Department of Health secretary filed an ethics complaint in March accusing Candelaria of having a conflict of interest in his vocal opposition to a bill aimed at changing a patient definition within the state’s medical cannabis program.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria

Candelaria, an attorney, disclosed during the session that he has represented Ultra Health LLC, the state’s largest medical marijuana producer, in court cases. But he did not recuse himself from voting on the bill.

On Tuesday, he pointed out that a court case dealing with the issue had been closed before the session began. A new case was then filed after the session ended, and a Santa Fe-based district judge ruled this week against the Department of Health.

“My integrity as a lawyer is part and parcel of my ability to make a living,” Candelaria said.

Meanwhile, the state Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint against Candelaria in April for jurisdictional reasons, although it was referred to an internal legislative ethics committee for possible review.

Candelaria said the filing of an ethics complaint by a Cabinet secretary against a legislator was unprecedented.

He also said a tort claim notice, essentially a formal alert that a lawsuit will be filed, was submitted to the state’s General Services Department on Monday.

“I just don’t think I deserve to be threatened,” Candelaria said.

The latest developments come after Candelaria faced scrutiny last fall for his interaction with New Mexico State Police officers after he reported receiving profanity-laced threatening phone calls.

Candelaria apologized for ordering three officers out of his home and accusing them of not being “helpful” but said getting the threats was one of the most traumatic events of his life.

A Senate Democratic caucus spokesman did not comment Tuesday on the planned lawsuit but said two top-ranking lawmakers drove to Albuquerque last fall to talk with Candelaria about unspecified “internal caucus issues.”

However, Candelaria said Tuesday that he has decided not to participate in caucus meetings with Senate Democrats, though he said he does not plan to change his party affiliation.

Specifically, he said he no longer feels comfortable “acquiescing” to the party line.

The four-year term Candelaria was elected to last year runs through 2024.

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