Complaining about the boss can be risky, especially when there’s no grievance officer or human resources director to listen.
State employees in the small but important agency that analyzes the laws, costs and policies of the education system said they were in such a bind.
Five workers compiled a three-page list of grievances against their supervisor, Rachel Gudgel, director of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
The workers’ most serious charge was that Gudgel disparaged Native Americans, often using terms such as “powwow” and “smoke signals.”
Other complaints centered on her management style.
“Director not available to staff; political networking is the priority,” one read.
Another listing stated, “[She’s] damaged relationships with outside agencies — disrespectful of others.”
Gudgel did not respond to requests for comment.
She became director of the Legislative Education Study Committee in 2016, hired by a panel of lawmakers on a 7-3 vote.
Gudgel makes about $129,000 annually. Her agency has 16 budgeted positions and about a dozen employees on staff, according to state records.
In this small shop, Gudgel herself was to hear employee grievances. Workers feared the arrangement would lead to retaliation.
Then came a breaking point that a few staff members said motivated them to seek help from the Legislature.
While lawmakers were meeting on the Jicarilla Apache Nation, staffers said, Gudgel made a snide comment about a Native American charter school.
One complainant quoted Gudgel as saying, “It’s not like making beaded sandals is going to improve student outcomes.”
Staff members relayed this and many other complaints about Gudgel to state Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque. At the time, Trujillo was chairwoman of the legislative panel with supervisory authority over Gudgel.
In a public meeting Jan. 20, 2020, Trujillo called for an executive session to discuss a personnel matter.
Some legislators on the committee knew complaints about Gudgel were to be the topic. Others weren’t sure what was happening.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, had been briefed about the complaints. She led the opposition to holding an executive session.
Stewart received support from Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces. Soules said he didn’t want to take up a personnel matter because the monthlong legislative session was beginning the following day.
Soules’ position troubled Gudgel’s staff members. Between themselves, the employees said widespread complaints against a state administrator should not be set aside because of the legislative calendar.
As it turned out, legislators directly responsible for supervising Gudgel never met to discuss the complaints against her.
Instead, leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives decided to hire private attorney Thomas Hnasko to investigate the allegations.
Working on a $260-an-hour contract, Hnasko talked to Gudgel, five complainants and about 15 of her former employees.
Hnasko produced a written report on his investigation, but few people have seen it.
A few who were briefed on the findings said Gudgel received a two-week suspension. Workers also said Gudgel was provided with “a leadership coach” at public expense.
I filed a request under the state public records law to obtain Hnasko’s report, plus any emails, memos or other documents regarding the investigation. Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, said the documents I requested would not be released.
He said state law exempts from disclosure “letters or memoranda that are matters of opinion in personnel files.” Burciaga said New Mexico courts have interpreted the provision to include documents concerning infractions and disciplinary action.
By his assessment, taxpayers who financed the investigation of Gudgel cannot see the results to determine for themselves if the allegations had substance or if a suspension was just punishment.
But what about the 32 legislators on the interim education committee? Ten are voting members who supposedly supervise Gudgel. Surely they have received and reviewed Hnasko’s findings.
That isn’t the case. Soules now chairs the committee, but he told me he hasn’t seen the report, which Hnasko completed last year.
The vice chairman is Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque. He also said he hasn’t received the report on Gudgel.
If Romero and Soules, leaders of the committee, are in the dark, it’s harder for other lawmakers to obtain information.
“To be perfectly honest, I know nothing. It was pretty hush-hush,” said Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, an advisory member of the committee that supervises Gudgel.
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said he did not know an investigation of Gudgel had occurred until he was asked about it for this column. He is a voting member of the committee.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, helped launch the investigation of Gudgel through the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy. Yet Egolf said he wasn’t sure if he had read Hnasko’s report.
Stewart, now president pro tem of the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said through a spokesman they had no comment on Gudgel’s situation. In a one-sentence statement, the spokesman said personnel matters involving legislative employees are confidential.
So confidential that the investigation of a high-ranking state manager might as well have been swallowed by quicksand.
Seventeen months after Rep. Trujillo tried but failed to bring the complaints about Gudgel to the responsible legislative committee, most lawmakers know as little as the voters who elected them.
That is to say, they know nothing at all.