Whiff of scandal highlights transparency gap

Whiff of scandal highlights transparency gap
By Trip Jennings

An obscure state agency pays out hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to settle lawsuits, effectively covering up damaging allegations against an outgoing governor. A governor, mind you, who promised to run the most transparent administration in New Mexico history.

The storyline is so rich in irony that it strains believability. And yet, here we are in May 2019, pondering a 10-minute TV investigative report from KRQE’s Larry Barker this week about $1.7 million in payouts that some say were made to cover up embarrassing allegations against former GOP Gov. Susana Martinez in the final days of her administration.

As salacious as the story is, the bigger reveal in Barker’s report is the systemic gap in the public’s ability to know how taxpayer dollars are spent to settle legal claims against New Mexico public officials. It’s an old problem, one that predates Martinez as governor. Journalists and others have chafed for years at being unable to learn settlement details in a timely manner due to arcane state rules and, often, agreements that delay disclosure for years. Admittedly, it’s a not-ready-for-prime-time challenge unless, of course, there’s a hint of scandal, which appears to be the case now.

Some state officials sought to address, at least in part, the lack of timely, public disclosure of settlement agreements involving public officials during this year’s legislative session.

The legislation, which failed to pass, would have required posting to the state Sunshine Portal amounts of taxpayer dollars paid out in individual settlements related to human rights, including sexual harassment and discrimination based on disability, sexual orientation and race, and the state agencies that are involved.

The bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque and Democratic Rep. Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe, and cleared the state Senate unanimously in the final week of the 60-day session. It died in the House of Representives despite support among some of its members, as Democratic Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos made clear. During a legislative committee meeting Chandler told Rue and Trujillo that she loved the bill but asked: “Why aren’t we going farther.”

The bill did not require names be published on the Sunshine Portal, but it would have sped up when certain information would be made public and would have posted settlement details in one place, instead of scattering them across state government agencies, as is the practice now.

“You may begin to see patterns” if the public can look at the settlements in one place, Rue told the legislative committee.

Trujillo added that the legislation makes it much easier to see the information than under the current system.

Rue and Trujillo both said they understood it might take time to build up enough support among state lawmakers to get their bill through the Legislature.

Perhaps that time will be during the 2020 legislative session, with Barker’s story, and all its potential for drama. And with the New Mexico GOP issuing a statement decrying the secrecy over taxpayer dollars after the airing of Barker’s story. We’ll have to wait and see if Democrats get on board.