What a mess a few state legislators have made for themselves. Worse still, they have broken bonds of trust with colleagues and the public they’re supposed to be serving.
This is a story of subterfuge and government at its worst. Instead of elected lawmakers receiving all the information they needed to make good decisions, a handful of fellow legislators strangled communication to protect a favored state employee, Rachel Gudgel. Details of how it happened are based on my interviews with more than a dozen people who were directly involved.
Gudgel is director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, an agency with about 15 employees that analyzes school policies and funding.
Staff employees in January 2020 complained of harassment and bigoted conduct by Gudgel. State Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, called for an executive session of the committee’s legislators to discuss Gudgel’s work record.
Gudgel’s strong legislative allies, Democratic Sens. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque and Bill Soules of Las Cruces, helped block that meeting.
Soules and Stewart were less successful in bottling up complaints against Gudgel by five members of her staff. The employees said Gudgel often used racial putdowns when speaking of Native Americans and caused heavy staff turnover with an abusive management style.
What the complainants wrote eventually reached House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. He decided the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy required an investigation of Gudgel.
Private attorney Thomas Hnasko was hired for the job. He interviewed Gudgel and about 20 past and current staff members, some several times.
His findings were summarized last year for a handful of legislators. Two of them, Trujillo and Egolf, found the report so damning they wanted to fire Gudgel.
Stewart and Mary Kay Papen, who was then president pro tem of the Senate, backed Gudgel. They eventually relented a bit, saying Gudgel should be suspended without pay for two weeks. That is what happened.
Papen and Egolf were not members of the legislative committee responsible for supervising Gudgel. Committee members should have received Hnasko’s findings and decided for themselves what course to take.
Instead, most legislators with direct authority over Gudgel knew nothing about the investigation, the findings or the backroom maneuvering by a couple powerful legislators to limit the director’s punishment.
Trujillo didn’t like the secretive nature of any of it. But contrary to Soules’ suspicions, Trujillo was not among the sources who sought me out regarding Gudgel’s conduct. Those who did said the work environment under Gudgel was one of fear.
I began interviewing legislators who supposedly oversee Gudgel. Most had no idea she had been the target of a special investigation.
At least eight of the 10 lawmakers didn’t receive details of Hnasko’s findings until last week, and then only because the case had received heavy publicity.
Committee lawmakers with voting power deadlocked 5-5 on whether to fire Gudgel. The tie vote keeps her in power.
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, was on the losing end of that decision. He says Gudgel made racist comments and should not remain on the state payroll.
Gudgel makes about $131,000 annually. She recently received a 1.5 percent raise, the same as the other employees of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
Sen. Harold Pope, D-Albuquerque, told me he also wants a change. Gudgel should not remain as committee director, he said.
Had all legislators on the committee known last year about the findings against Gudgel, they might have terminated her employment then.
Now Gudgel’s defenders, especially Stewart, say she’s already been punished with the suspension and should not be subject to any further penalty.
Lente questioned why a few lawmakers in leadership positions held back a report with information essential for other legislators to do their jobs. No one in power has given a satisfactory explanation.
Also voting for Gudgel’s firing were Reps. Trujillo, G. Andrés Romero and House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, all Democrats from Albuquerque.
Gudgel’s support on the committee came from Democrats Stewart and Soules and the three Republicans: Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs and Reps. Alonzo Baldonado of Los Lunas and T. Ryan Lane of Aztec.
Protesters planned to confront committee members this week at a meeting in Shiprock on the Navajo Nation. Soules called off the meeting in a terse announcement Saturday.
“Due to public health orders on the Navajo Nation, the LESC meeting in Shiprock is being rescheduled,” he wrote in a message.
Asked to specify the orders, Soules said the Navajo Nation is prohibiting meetings of more than 25 people.
“We will probably have that with members, staff and presenters,” he wrote in the message.
The Navajo Nation’s order had been in place for five weeks.
Soules later said the meeting in Shiprock could be rescheduled for October.
Another delay won’t silence other members of the committee that’s supposed to supervise Gudgel. Eighteen months in darkness increased their appreciation of sunlight.