Former legislator Trujillo accuses lobbyists of defamation in lawsuit

Carl Trujillo is seeking damages stemming from the publication and dissemination of ‘disparaging and defamatory statements.’ Courtesy photo

Former state Rep. Carl Trujillo filed a defamation and civil conspiracy lawsuit Thursday against a former lobbyist who accused him of sexual harassment before last year’s primary election — allegations that may have cost him his legislative seat.

Trujillo claims the allegations, which he continues to vehemently deny, were part of a plot to knock him out of office.

In addition to former lobbyist Laura Bonar, the lawsuit also names as defendants Animal Protection Voters, Animal Protection of New Mexico, and employees Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Jennings. Also named is Julianna Koob, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Votes New Mexico.

“Bonar, Jennings, and Johnson were all employees of APV and APNM during the time their false allegations and defamatory statements took place,” said a news release on the lawsuit issued Thursday by Trujillo’s attorney, Luke Ragsdale of Roswell.

“Koob is a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood/ACLU who also caused false and defamatory live calls during Trujillo’s campaign, participated in meetings with APV and APNM employees to conspire to force Trujillo’s resignation or to force him to lose his seat, and made false and defamatory statements about Trujillo at a Continuing Legal Education conference,” the release says.

Trujillo declined to comment, saying his attorney had already provided a statement.

Efforts to reach Bonar, Johnson, Jennings and Koob by phone or email late Thursday were unsuccessful.

“He’s filing a lawsuit against us now?” asked a woman who answered the phone at Animal Protection of New Mexico offices in Albuquerque.

Bonar is chief program and policy officer for Animal Protection Voters and Animal Protection of New Mexico. Jennings is the groups’ executive director. And Johnson is Animal Protection Voters’ chief legislative officer.

Trujillo is seeking compensatory and punitive damages stemming from the publication and dissemination of what the lawsuit calls “disparaging and defamatory statements” by the defendants.

“While sexual harassment is a very serious matter, false allegations aimed at destroying the career and reputation of a good man and public servant cannot stand,” Ragsdale said in the statement. “It is also disturbing the voters in District 46 were intentionally manipulated by these false statements.”

In May — about a month before the Democratic primary election that Trujillo lost to political newcomer Andrea Romero — Bonar accused Trujillo of propositioning her, touching her inappropriately and offering a sort of quid pro quo for sex as she lobbied for legislation on behalf of Animal Protection Voters in 2014.

“You held your power as a state legislator over my head, making it clear to me that my passion for my cause would get me nowhere unless I demonstrated ‘passion’ for you,” Bonar wrote in an open letter to Trujillo that she shared with multiple news organizations and that was posted online — including on Animal Protection Voters’ Facebook page.

“You did all of this as a married man,” wrote Bonar, who called on the Santa Fe-area lawmaker to resign from office.

A few days later, Johnson wrote a letter that also was widely circulated, corroborating part of Bonar’s account.

At the same time Bonar formally requested an inquiry, leaders from the state House of Representatives decided to launch an investigation.

In May, the lawsuit alleges, Koob helped arrange “hundreds of live phone calls” from Planned Parenthood to voters in Trujillo’s district in which he was falsely accused of refusing to cooperate in the investigation.

“Koob’s live calls were false and defamatory,” the lawsuit says.

Trujillo voted against a bill that would have banned certain late-term abortions in 2015. Planned Parenthood had been a vigorous supporter of the bill.

In July, the Legislative Ethics Subcommittee dismissed three of the five charges of sexual harassment against Trujillo. In November, the committee dismissed the remaining two charges against Trujillo after Bonar refused to submit to questioning by his attorneys. Bonar objected to questions Trujillo’s lawyers had submitted to her in writing, saying they would have forced her to identify other women who discussed allegations of harassment with her, potentially violating confidences.

She also objected to requests by Trujillo’s lawyers for some of her medical records.

The lawsuit states that Wendy York, a special master overseeing part of the case, “reassured Bonar that she would view her health records evidence [in private], and only release evidence relevant to her allegations against” Trujillo. It also states York “reassured Bonar that she was not being asked to disclose the identities of other women that told Bonar that they had been harassed” by Trujillo.

In a letter to lawyers handling the case, Bonar wrote that “to disclose these names and submit to such a deposition would invariably require me either to violate my commitment to women who placed their trust in me, or to perjure myself.”

Trujillo says in the lawsuit that he got a whiff of looming trouble when he talked to Jessica Johnson, Animal Protection Voters’ chief legislative officer, in January 2018. He said he called Johnson to ask if she had heard “any rumors of people looking to help his opposition.”

According to the lawsuit, Johnson told Trujillo she had been at a meeting with her husband, Ben Shelton, legislative and political director for Conservation Voters New Mexico, and a few other unidentified lobbyists in which Trujillo and his House District 46 race were a topic of discussion.

“Johnson told [Trujillo] that they were discussing how they would take [Trujillo] out in the primary election,” the lawsuit says. “Johnson warned [Trujillo] to be careful because ‘they’ were getting very organized.”

As a result of the “disparaging and defamatory statements” against him, Trujillo claims in the lawsuit that he “has suffered a diminished reputation in his community, loss of an election, mental anguish, emotional distress, damage to his good name, damage to his good standing in the community, incurred attorney fees in his defense, and other damages.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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