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Balderas axes AG staffers

Democrat Hector Balderas cruised to victory Tuesday over Republican Susan Riedel to become New Mexico's next attorney general. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Democrat Hector Balderas takes over at the beginning of the year as New Mexico’s attorney general. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Attorney General-elect Hector Balderas, who takes office in two weeks, has begun cleaning house.

Notices went out this week to an undisclosed number of Attorney General Gary King’s employees, telling them they won’t be kept in a Balderas administration.

It wasn’t clear as of Thursday just how many of the nearly 180 current employees will be let go. King, who was out of the office on vacation, said in a telephone interview the number appeared to be between 20 and 30.

King leaves office at the end of the month after two terms. Balderas will be sworn in Jan. 1.

King said he didn’t recall making significant changes when he first took office eight years ago, nor did he require employees to reapply for their jobs. He said he replaced division directors with his own people over time, as vacancies arose.

“My style is much more deliberate,” he said.

Balderas told employees of the AG’s office last month they had to reapply for their jobs if they wanted to continue under his administration.

Brief emails went out this week from Balderas’s transition team to those who won’t be rehired, thanking them for their commitment and efforts and notifying them that as of Dec. 31 “your services will no longer be required.”

Those fired included lawyers and non-lawyers such as special agents and administrative staff, according to Mary H. Smith, an assistant attorney general in the civil division who received her email Tuesday night.

Smith has worked for the office for 16½ years and survived two previous transitions, from Democrats Tom Udall to Patricia Madrid, and from Madrid to King.

“I frankly did not expect to lose my job. Incoming AG’s have not done that; they don’t terminate people before they even get into the office,” said Smith, whose job includes advising state officials and boards, and handling complaints about violations of laws governing open meetings and open records.

“On a professional level, this is offensive. On a personal level, this is devastating,” she said.

All employees of the attorney general are exempt, meaning they serve at the pleasure of the AG and lack job protections afforded to employees classified under state personnel rules.

Both King and Balderas are Democrats, although they have tangled in the past. Balderas, in his general election contest with Republican Susan Riedel, faulted King’s handling of an ongoing Medicaid fraud investigation of behavioral health agencies. Balderas has served as state auditor for the past eight years, while King has served as AG.

Balderas’s transition team declined to discuss the personnel changes, providing only the following statement from spokeswoman Sonya Carrasco-Trujillo:

“During this ongoing transition process, we are focused on building a dynamic Attorney General’s Office that best serves the interests of all New Mexicans.”

King said he had advised Balderas to wait until he was in office and could observe how the agency was running before making personnel decisions – especially because a new AG also faces the difficult task of immediately getting ready for a legislative session.

King’s unheeded words of wisdom: “Keep the team, get through the legislative session, and then make decisions.”

Typically, some top-level agency personnel decide to leave when administrations change, because they’re close to the outgoing AG, or anticipate they might not be kept, or decide it’s time to do something else.

“I would expect there to be turnover in the front office, certainly, and I would expect some turnover in the directors’ positions, too. … I wouldn’t expect a lot of turnover beyond that,” said Scott Fuqua, director of the litigation division.

Fuqua had told the transition team he wouldn’t be sticking around; he plans to go into private practice.

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