For the record: A previous version of this story mistakenly attributed information about settlement payments to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office, instead of the governor’s campaign. The error was made during the editing process.
Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s campaign paid an additional $87,500 over the past six months as part of a settlement with a former staff member who had accused her of sexual mistreatment during a 2018 meeting, a campaign spokeswoman said Sunday.
The payments, the last of which was made Sept. 29, will be included in a mandatory campaign finance report Lujan Grisham’s reelection campaign will file Monday.
They bring the final dollar amount of the settlement with James Hallinan to $150,000, as the Lujan Grisham campaign previously reported paying $62,500 to a law firm representing Hallinan in an April campaign filing.
The Democratic governor has strenuously denied the allegations made by Hallinan, who worked as a spokesman for Lujan Grisham during her 2018 general election campaign.
In a statement Sunday, campaign spokeswoman Kendall Witmer said the latest payments were part of a settlement that “resolved suspect and varied claims made by Mr. Hallinan, including his search for employment and clients following his tumultuous tenure on the 2018 campaign.”
“The campaign reached this settlement in 2020 due to the expense of litigating business disputes and to prevent any distraction during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Witmer said.
“Gov. Lujan Grisham will continue to work tirelessly for the people of New Mexico, delivering on record economic growth, educational investment, and tax cuts for New Mexico’s families – all while leading the state through the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added.
Hallinan 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 during a meeting in 2018.
Hallinan, who now runs his own communications and public relations company, told the Journal he was talked out of reporting the incident by Lujan Grisham campaign manager Dominic Gabello, who went on to work in the Governor’s Office before stepping down at the end of April.
But the governor, Gabello and Lujan Grisham’s campaign all deny Hallinan’s claims and feel confident they would have been disproved in court, Witmer said.
The first 10 settlement payments were each for $12,500, while the final payment was for $25,000. They are listed as legal expenses, with one payment a month from November 2020 through September. The September payment completes the payments owed in the settlement, according to the governor’s campaign.
The payments were made to the Buckley Beal law firm in Atlanta, where Rachel Berlin Benjamin, an attorney for Hallinan, is senior partner.
In April, she said the governor and Hallinan “have resolved any differences or issues to their satisfaction” but declined to provide additional information.
And Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office has said the settlement payments are an allowable expenditure under the state’s campaign finance laws since they relate to an employment dispute with a former campaign staffer.
Meanwhile, the settlement has drawn criticism from state and national Republicans, with the New Mexico GOP describing it as “hush money” paid to a former staffer, and could be used as campaign fodder by Lujan Grisham’s rivals during next year’s gubernatorial race.
For her part, Lujan Grisham has said she has been transparent about the settlement, and disputed comparisons to sexual harassment allegations levied at former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I was focused on the pandemic, and I’ll stand by that decision every minute of every day,” Lujan Grisham said during a June news conference, describing the decision to settle.
The governor also said there have not been other financial settlements or nondisclosure agreements of a similar nature.