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Editorial: NM Legislature needs to end its cover-up of staffer’s comments

What did she say, when did she say it, and to whom?

Those are key questions regarding Rachel Gudgel, the director of a key legislative committee that analyzes education policy and spending for N.M. lawmakers, accused of making disparaging comments about Native Americans.

Pueblo governors are calling for her removal and demanding an investigative report commissioned by the Legislature that should answer the questions above be released.

“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,” Wilfred Herrera, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said in a letter to legislative leaders last week.

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said legislators who supervise Gudgel’s work authorized the investigation last year after an employee complaint. The investigation, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, examined Gudgel’s alleged disparaging remarks along with complaints about her management style. A Journal request for the report under the Inspection of Public Records Act last year was denied, with the Legislature citing the exemption for “matters of opinion in a personnel file.”

This, of course, is ridiculous. The Journal has and continues to argue a rational reading of the legislative exemption would be to redact opinions (she’s a wonderful/horrible manager as an example) and then release the facts. That would include her specific remarks that led to calls for firing. If, in fact, Gudgel made disparaging or racist remarks documented in the report, those are NOT matters of opinion. And stretching the law to cover actual facts (as the Albuquerque Public Schools and Santa Fe Police Department have done in cases currently in the courts) are tantamount to cover-up.

This isn’t to say Gudgel should be fired. It’s impossible to make that judgment without knowing what she said and perhaps the context. Asked if Gudgel 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.”

True enough. But Native Americans leaders and the public have every right to know what she said and decide for themselves. As for Gudgel, she has gone through additional training and is “sorry for my isolated insensitive comments.”

Even House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, says he hasn’t seen it. Despite claiming he doesn’t know the facts, Egolf says comments like those attributed to Gudgel “have no place in the Legislature or anywhere else.” Which returns us to key questions: what did she say, when did she say it and to whom?

Herrera of the Pueblo Governors Council says it’s baffling 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 the actions of legislative leaders; let alone Ms. Gudgel, who continues to advise the LESC.” He’s absolutely right.

And as the landmark Yazzie-Martinez court case shows, Native American children have not been receiving the education they are entitled. Legislative leaders withholding this report from the public should reconsider, for the sake of credibility in the institution, in recognition of the long-standing educational inequities in New Mexico and in deference to those harmed by Gudgel’s alleged disparaging comments.

As it stands now, it’s just another cover-up.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.