When trying to learn the identity of the hotel guests who had complained about noise from her now infamous Christmas party at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa, Gov. Susana Martinez told a police dispatcher, “It’s a public record — give it to me.”
The audio recordings from that exchange captured national attention. Critics branded Martinez a bully who had used her power to call off a police investigation. But largely overlooked was her insistence that the identity of the person who had made the complaint should be public record.
Her demand for the name struck a chord among many who have asked for public records from her office, only to find themselves waiting for months for documents that should have been easy to produce. Her office’s slow and sometimes incomplete responses to public records requests not only have undermined Martinez’s claim that she leads the most transparent administration in state history, they also have resulted in several news organizations suing the administration over various public information issues.
Notable among documents her office has been reluctant to produce are spending invoices for her contingency fund, the pool of taxpayer money used to pay for expenses at the governor’s mansion. It also was used to pay for the holiday party.
Recently, Martinez’s office refused to release detailed records from previous events paid for with money from her contingency fund.
On Oct. 22, The New Mexican requested under the public records law that Martinez’s office turn over “all records of purchases made under Gov. Susana Martinez’s contingency fund.” Requested records included “items purchased, costs of purchases, dates of purchases and the names of the companies or individuals from which the purchase was made.”
After delaying the response once, Pamela Cason, Martinez’s records custodian, sent an email Nov. 24 with a 23-page document that listed purchases made under the fund since Martinez took office in January 2011. It split the purchases into five spending categories: supplies, food and beverage, contract services for events, miscellaneous and subscriptions.
But the list did not provide requested details of the individual purchases. It also did not include invoices or vendor names.
Spokesmen for Martinez did not address specific questions about the fund made early last week. On Thursday, Michael Lonergan, one of Martinez’s spokesmen, said in an email that the governor “cut the size of the fund by a significant amount and voluntarily issues spending reports 3 times more often than what is required by law.”
The email added, “This is simply a fund created by state statute to assist the Governor with carrying out duties and functions related to the office. And while state law is very clear that it is not subject to audit and only requires the office to issue an annual report about its use, the Governor has continued to issue reports quarterly outlining the categories and amounts of expenditures and significantly cut spending from the fund.”
Susan Boe, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government, said it appeared that officials in the Governor’s Office created the documents in response to The New Mexican’s records request. Under the Inspection of Public Records Act, a public agency is not required to create a record that does not already exist.
“It looked pretty clear that you were asking for all the records and purchases,” Boe said, “and this was just a summary in broad categories.”
Boe said that under the state law, the Governor’s Office still has not met The New Mexican’s records request. She added that there are no exceptions in the law that would allow the Governor’s Office to withhold the records, and that if the office did not have the documents requested, it would have to inform The New Mexican which public agency has them.
“They’re not even claiming an exception,” Boe said, “and that’s because they couldn’t.”
Janice Arnold-Jones, a former Republican state representative from Albuquerque, agreed that contingency fund expenditures should be made available to the public. Arnold-Jones sponsored a number of transparency bills in the state Legislature. She said the contingency fund — which is financed through legislative appropriations — is important because it allows the governor to carry out her duty of being the “prime host of the state” by holding events at the governor’s mansion. Such events, she said, can help the state spur economic development.
“Why is it a secret?” she said. “Why would you not want to tell people what a good host you’ve been?”
The New Mexican has an outstanding request under the state Inspection of Public Records Act for all expense records involving the Dec. 13 holiday party at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa. A Martinez spokesman has said the office spent $7,900 from the contingency fund for that party, where local police responded to complaints of rowdy behavior. The office has promised to respond by Tuesday, Jan. 5.
In her first inaugural address in 2011, Martinez pledged, “We will shine a light into the dark corners of state government in order to regain the public trust and to ensure that public officials are putting the people’s business first. … Transparency and accountability will be core values of my administration.”
As recently as October 2014, Chris Sanchez, then a Martinez campaign spokesman, repeated the governor’s mantra on open government: “Gov. Martinez is running the most transparent administration in New Mexico history.”
In her 2010 campaign, Martinez blasted then Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, for lack of transparency. Indeed, Richardson was known for denying requests for documents based on “executive privilege.” He invoked the privilege when asked by reporters for a consultant’s report on which the state spent $181,200 for new policy ideas.
Richardson also dragged his feet several times on releasing public records sought by reporters. In his first term, when he frequently flew out of state on private planes provided by supporters, he refused to release information on who owned the planes. There was trouble through the years getting him to release a daily schedule. And upon leaving office at the end of 2010, Richardson announced his records would be sealed for eight years.
But in reality, reporters seeking other documents, such as travel records, from the Martinez administration have struggled to get timely — and complete — responses to their requests. In some cases, it’s taken up to six months to get aggregate totals for out-of-state travel for Martinez. The administration has a policy of refusing to release actual travel expense receipts, citing security issues.
Another public information request dealing with certain governor’s mansion expenses took more than nine months. The request was made in July 2014, and no documents came until early May 2015.
In that request, the administration did include several invoices, purchase orders and receipts from individual expenses. But those documents accounted for less than 10 percent of the $217,000 she spent from the contingency fund during her first four years in office.
In 2015, from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, Martinez reported spending $55,837.79 from the contingency fund.
In some lawsuits filed by The Associated Press over public records requests, Martinez’s lawyers have tried to argue that enforcing parts of the Inspection of Public Records Act would be unconstitutional. In enforcing the act, the state “must account for the constitutional, statutory and common-law rights of Gov. Martinez, her family and other public employees to protect their lives, property and personal security, and to be free of deprivation of that right without due process of the law.”
In the same filings, Martinez’s lawyers also said the state must “account for any limitations imposed by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as its counterpart in … the New Mexico Constitution.” The Fourth Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Sometimes the administration denies public information requests by saying the Governor’s Office “does not hold any responsive records to your request.”
In April 2014, a Martinez spokesman sent an email to a New Mexican reporter regarding a long outstanding public records request. The request was for information on the system the office uses to keep track of public records requests. Though the email was addressed to the reporter, as well as to Martinez’s records custodian, it appeared it was not actually intended for the reporter’s eyes.
“Steve pinged me on this again and says he needs an answer for a Sunday column he’s writing,” the email said. “How do we want to respond? Another ‘don’t have responsive documents’ response?”