Former state Attorney General Gary King was supposed to enforce New Mexico’s public records law. Instead, he violated it by withholding emails that were embarrassing to him and his office.
Every cover-up comes with a price. King’s will cost taxpayers $265,000.
That is the amount the Attorney General’s Office has agreed to pay to avoid a trial with Marcy Britton, an Albuquerque animal-rights advocate who for years was denied public records by King.
The money will be divided between Britton and her lawyers, according to state District Court records.
King, a Democrat, was attorney general for two terms, from 2007-14. His successor, Hector Balderas, also a Democrat, reached the financial settlement with Britton on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office.
“As State Auditor, I assisted Ms. Britton by locating the original records, and as Attorney General I am glad to have finally resolved this important lawsuit in the interest of transparency,” Balderas said Tuesday in a statement.
Britton declined to comment, but one of her lawyers, John Boyd, called it an equitable settlement.
“This case is really a testament to Marcy Britton’s persistence. She wouldn’t quit,” Boyd said.
The emails King withheld involved the Attorney General’s Animal Cruelty Task Force, which he established early in his first term.
This arm of King’s administration raided Hispanic ranches that supposedly operated cockfighting rings. In the most notorious case, a sheriff’s helicopter, 28 certified law officers and a veterinarian with sodium pentobarbital swooped down on a ranch in San Juan County.
As was typical in these raids, they found no cockfighting. But King’s task force still used the drug to kill about 700 roosters, hens and chicks on the property. It claimed the birds might have been raised on steroids and could contaminate the food chain.
King’s task force included members of his staff and Heather Ferguson, who at the time worked for the advocacy organization Animal Protection of New Mexico. Records that Britton unearthed showed Ferguson was influential in organizing the raids.
“Doing more search warrants. This is going to be a crazy case,” Ferguson wrote in an email to Scott Fuqua, an assistant attorney general.
Fuqua often carried on flirtatious banter with Ferguson in emails. This time he questioned her authority.
“Why are you doing the search warrants? Shouldn’t the police handle that?” he asked.
Ferguson’s response was flippant: “I’ll just be there to point out the important stuff for them to take … like roosters. Saw that a stray dog wandered off with one for a snack from the scene after the deputies had collected everything good lord.” [sic]
Britton learned of the raids and was angered by the task force’s wanton killing of birds. She went to the FBI to make a complaint against King.
Britton also filed an open-records request with King’s office, seeking all documents and emails pertaining to his Animal Cruelty Task Force.
King stonewalled. His office eventually released a few dozen emails. Many were notable only for their unintelligible writing. In some instances, King’s staff sent Britton many duplicates of the same banal emails. Stalling is a strategy politicians use to wear down someone who’s after information.
Britton kept up the pressure. She filed a lawsuit against King’s office eight years ago, saying he had broken the open-records law by refusing to release emails about his task force.
By 2014, she had allies. Ranchers who’d been raided also sued King. They brought federal complaints saying King’s task force had violated their constitutional rights with illegal searches.
King was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. His mishandling of the task force surfaced in The New Mexican’s coverage of his campaign.
To fight criticism that he had broken the public records law, King released thousands of emails to lawyers for the ranchers. These were the same records Britton had requested but been denied.
One of the emails revealed that King considered filing a criminal charge against Britton after learning she had gone to the FBI.
“OK. I believe it is time we become proactive ourselves,” King wrote to his staff. “Slander is probably not an option for us. Let’s think about whether we can bring an action for filing a false report.”
King never charged Britton with a crime. Perhaps this was because Steve Suttle, another of King’s assistant attorneys general, received notice from the FBI that it wouldn’t move against King.
“Their letter didn’t request a response. It was FYI,” Suttle stated in an email. “I think Heather is going to contact the agent, but I asked her to wait until we’ve discussed it internally.”
To fend off the ranchers’ lawsuits, King pinned the blame on Ferguson.
“I never stated or knowingly implied that Ms. Ferguson had any authority to lead in the enforcement of New Mexico’s animal cruelty laws, or to organize law enforcement officials in the enforcement of those laws,” King stated in a court affidavit.
But emails from Ferguson showed King was apprised of the raids, sometimes with her assessment of how much publicity they would receive.
Ranchers’ lawsuits against King and his task force failed on a variety of grounds. In the suit by the San Juan County ranchers, King and his staff asked for qualified immunity. They argued that government officials cannot be held liable for actions taken in the course of their duties.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales ruled for King. Gonzales even granted immunity to the task force’s nongovernment members, Ferguson and veterinarian Patricia Feeser Norris, who supplied the drug to kill the birds.
King didn’t fare as well on litigation regarding the open-records law. The state Court of Appeals ruled for Britton, saying daily fines can be levied when agencies wrongly hold back public records.
Britton, who is not wealthy, spent her own money to expose abuses committed by King and his task force.
In the end, an ordinary woman overcame extraordinary odds to win.
It still doesn’t seem right, though. The fact that it took eight years means justice delayed was justice denied.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.