Despite 2020 reform, state agency denies legal duty to publish settlements
An attorney for the New Mexico state agency responsible for making government more efficient has attributed Source NM’s findings of inconsistent posting of settlements made with public funds to a “clerical error.”
An interim attorney for the New Mexico General Services Department said a technical glitch delayed publication of settlements to an online portal, but otherwise maintained the agency is complying with state law on the matter.
“[Risk Management Division] voluntarily posts settlements to the sunshine portal in the spirit of transparency,” wrote interim General Counsel Jacob Maule in an email Monday. “There is no law that requires posting settlements to the portal.”
The Risk Management Division within GSD insures property and liability for state agencies. This can mean settling lawsuits with claims of personal injury or property damage; but also for sexual assault, discrimination, police violence and other alleged misconduct.
Former and current lawmakers who removed the six-month confidentiality period on these kinds of settlements in a 2020 law, were frustrated by the agency’s response.
Former Sen. Sander Rue (R-Albuquerque) introduced the bill in 2020 in the wake of $1.7 million settlements made by former Gov. Susana Martinez with members of her State Police security detail.
The six-month confidentiality period prevented adequate oversight, he said, and was outdated.
“With technology now, there’s absolutely no reason for that kind of a delay,” he said.
Rue said there was overwhelming support for Senate Bill 64 – evidenced by its unanimous passage and near-immediate signing into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“Those records should be available for public inspection – period,” Rue said.
The law now mandates public inspection be available immediately – when both parties sign the agreement.
“I should have required, like I did on other bills, that it shall be posted on the portal. And the way this is written, it should be available upon request,” Rue said. “So that that was an oversight, that’s something somebody should go back and maybe amend.”
Rep. Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos) said the agency “is not acting within the intent of the law, that’s for sure.”
Chandler, who co-sponsored a bill identical to Rue’s in the House, said she sympathizes with high turnover and administrative errors, but said the information should be available immediately.
“The public needs to see this promptly,” she said. “When it’s fresh on people’s minds, there is a greater willingness for accountability and transparency.”
She said a legislative fix she might bring for future sessions would mandate the posting on the state’s Sunshine Portal after a certain amount of days.
“I imagine that there would be a great deal of support in the legislature to do that,” Chandler said “I think some of us would be aggravated by the fact that we have to do that. But I think there would be a willingness if the agency is unwilling to step up to the plate and just do what is right.
What was the response?
The agency responsible for posting settlement information did not fully answer questions posed last week by Source NM, which included asking for specifics on policies and procedures around the changes in the law on the sunshine portal, and for specific names and titles of employees in the department who are responsible for posting the settlements to the portal.
Instead, in an email after publication, Maule told Source NM that the agency only publishes information on the Sunshine Portal around the 1st and the 15th of each month. Maule cited a “clerical error,” which “prevented the new uploads from being visible to the public,” until Monday, Sept. 11 – when Source NM reached out to the agency.
After the initial statement, the lead counsel and other agency officials did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with leadership, and did not clarify what the clerical error was.
As of Thursday, Sept. 21, there have been no updates to the portal.