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Pueblo leaders seek ouster of key legislative staffer

SANTA FE —  Pueblo governors in New Mexico are calling for the removal of a top legislative staffer, Rachel Gudgel, over allegations that she made disparaging comments about Native Americans.

Gudgel is director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, overseeing staff members who analyze education policy and spending for New Mexico lawmakers.

In a letter to legislative leaders this week, Wilfred Herrera Jr., chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said Gudgel should be removed as director and that the results of an investigative report concerning her management should be released to the public.

What Gudgel said — and whether any allegations against her were substantiated — isn’t clear.

The Legislative Council Service last year denied a public records request from the Journal for the report.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported this month that the investigation examined allegations that Gudgel had made disparaging remarks about Native Americans and complaints about her management style.

The findings of the investigation, Herrera said, should be released to the public.

“The public at large, including tribal communities, has a right to know the full story in order to fully restore trust within state and tribal relations,” said Herrera, governor of the Pueblo of Laguna.

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said Friday that legislators who supervise Gudgel’s work authorized an investigation last year after an employee complaint.

Gudgel was later put on probation, Stewart said, and she and her staff worked with a management consultant.

Gudgel “was very professional and acknowledged her mistakes,” Stewart said, adding that she had “worked very hard on a daily basis to change her ways of relating to her staff. I think she’s been through a lot.”

Asked whether Gudgel had made racist comments, Stewart said: “There are a lot of phrases in our lexicon that everyone uses that we’re now learning are hurtful and can be thought of as disparaging, and all of us, myself included, we need to listen to the language we’re using.

“I don’t believe she ever meant any of those remarks to be disparaging.”

Gudgel has worked for the Legislative Education Study Committee — a 10-member panel of legislators — since 2015. Before that, she worked as principal analyst for the Legislative Finance Committee and as an attorney.

The LESC meets between legislative sessions to study education policy in New Mexico. Under Gudgel, staff members who work for the committee prepare reports, analyze legislation during the session and provide technical support to lawmakers.

In a written statement Friday, Gudgel asked for forgiveness and said she had worked for the inclusion and success of all students throughout her career and would continue to do so.

“I regret and am sorry for my isolated, insensitive comments,” Gudgel said. “My track record on being an advocate for the success of all New Mexico students and specifically Native American students — which includes more than 11 years as a legislative employee — stands on its own merits.”

She said she had “complied with the consequences imposed by legislative leadership and I have put these events — which occurred at least 22 months ago — behind me to focus on the great challenges at hand. To that end, I have learned a lot from this and humbly ask for forgiveness.”

Stewart, who served as vice chairwoman of the LESC when the complaint was filed, said the committee will conduct a performance evaluation of Gudgel and her staff.

Stewart said the investigative report issued last year is confidential and has been shared only with a few legislators who oversee Gudgel’s work for the LESC.

In rejecting the Journal’s request for the report last year, the Legislative Council Service cited a provision in state law exempting “matters of opinion in personnel files” from disclosure. The council service also said it was required to maintain confidentiality to the extent legally possible for any documents related to anti-harassment investigations.

Rep. Christine Trujillo, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the LESC when the complaint was filed, said she couldn’t say much about the situation.

“I’m supposed to not talk about it because it’s a personnel issue,” Trujillo said. But she added: “Behaviors like that should not be accepted.”

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told the All Pueblo Council of Governors in a letter Friday that he shared their concerns about Gudgel’s “ability to have a productive working relationship with” Native American legislators and leaders of tribal nations.

But he also said Gudgel reports to the Legislative Education Study Committee, not to the speaker, and that he didn’t receive access to the investigative report. Egolf said he would ask the 10 members of the committee to decide whether she should continue as director.

“Comments like those attributed to Ms. Gudgel have no place in the Legislature or anywhere else,” Egolf said.

Herrera, of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said it’s baffling that so few lawmakers have read the report.

“Without knowing the full details surrounding the remarks uttered by Ms. Gudgel about Native Americans and potentially other communities of color,” Herrera said, “it’s difficult to trust in the actions of legislative leaders; let alone Ms. Gudgel, who continues to advise the LESC.”

Rep. Derrick Lente, a Sandia Pueblo Democrat who has pushed for legislation to improve education for Native Americans, said he will ask the LESC to discuss Gudgel’s performance in an upcoming meeting.

Lente is a member of the committee.

“Racist comments have no place in society, especially in a legislature,” Lente said.

For the record

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Rep. Christine Trujillo as chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee and Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart as vice chairwoman of the committee. They held those positions at the time of the complaint, but the new leaders of the LESC are Sen. William Soules, the chairman, and Rep. G. Andrés Romero, the vice chairman.

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