What’s plain after two months of infighting is an attempted cover-up by a few state senators has failed miserably. Equally clear is it almost worked.
A handful of senators tried to hide and then minimize the misconduct of Rachel Gudgel, one of their favored state employees. The tactics used by Democratic Sens. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque and Bill Soules of Las Cruces ultimately served to intensify media coverage and shine more light on Gudgel’s bad behavior.
Gudgel, director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, was accused by five subordinates of making racial slurs, and of driving off staff members with a caustic and unfair management style.
A special investigator hired by legislative leadership confirmed the allegations were true. In turn, Gudgel admitted to belittling Native Americans.
Her direct supervisors are legislators who serve on the Education Study Committee. But Stewart and then-Sen. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces did not want other lawmakers to decide if Gudgel should be fired.
They had a plan. Gudgel would be suspended for two weeks, but nothing about her misconduct or the disciplinary action would be mentioned to most lawmakers who supervise her.
Gudgel received management training from “a leadership coach” hired at taxpayers’ expense. This development also was known only by a few legislators.
The behind-the-scenes maneuvers kept the public in the dark for more than a year. After receiving tips from a few readers, I looked into what had happened and began writing about the deal-making that had protected Gudgel.
As the truth seeped out, many legislators were incensed, especially Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo. He is a voting member of the committee that oversees Gudgel, yet he knew nothing about the state investigation or the findings against her.
Lente last month finally was provided with details of the investigation. He said what Gudgel had done was worse than he imagined. He wants to fire her.
An attempt to dismiss Gudgel from her job ended in a 5-5 deadlock of the legislative committee. She remains in her $131,000-a-year job.
Stewart and Soules in 2020 voted against an executive session to consider Gudgel’s work performance and her statements mocking Native Americans.
Then Soules, after becoming the committee chairman, tried to stage an executive session in which only Gudgel’s management coach would brief legislators.
Soules figured this would cast Gudgel in a good light.
Soules had not arranged for lawmakers to hear from the private attorney who investigated Gudgel and produced the damning report about her conduct. Only when pressured by colleagues did Soules acquiesce and call in the investigator for a closed-door meeting with a panel of legislators.
Gudgel has apologized to tribes and pueblos for her disparaging remarks. But she also has misrepresented her standing with certain lawmakers.
In one instance, Gudgel sent a statement to a television station saying: “I was disciplined and received strong support from House and Senate leadership.”
In truth, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, wanted to fire Gudgel in 2020. He still does. Egolf told me he would be surprised if anyone in his caucus of 44 Democratic representatives wants to retain Gudgel.
Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, was the first lawmaker to ask the Education Study Committee to look into Gudgel’s conduct. Trujillo acted months before legislative leadership hired the private attorney to investigate Gudgel.
As chairwoman of the Education Study Committee in 2020, Trujillo had received reports about Gudgel denigrating Native Americans. The complaints came from Gudgel’s own staff.
Stewart and Soules simply want to shove aside all that’s happened and let Gudgel continue as a highly paid state administrator.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, says Stewart and Soules aren’t the only senators who want to keep Gudgel in power.
In a message to a constituent, Wirth wrote: “I want you to know that the Native American state Senators in our caucus are not calling for Ms. Gudgel’s removal.”
Wirth declined to comment further when I contacted him. Instead, he highlighted a statement of support Gudgel received from Democratic Sen. Shannon Pinto, a member of the Navajo Nation.
Until several weeks ago, few residents of New Mexico had heard of Gudgel or the legislative office she runs. That was the way Soules, Stewart and a few other legislators wanted it.
No matter what happens with Gudgel, the lawmakers who insisted on secrecy have hurt themselves. Each time Stewart utters that famous government word “transparency,” critics will point to her attempts to keep other lawmakers from learning about Gudgel’s conduct. If Soules says he stands for responsive government, tribal leaders will remind him of how he argued against an executive session to hear complaints about Gudgel.
Gudgel didn’t create the system that protected her. A few legislators did it for her. The worst part is, their cover-up almost worked.