An attorney for Gov. Susana Martinez suggested Wednesday in a state courtroom in Santa Fe that Martinez has no obligation to speak with reporters.
The governor, her public information staff and campaign spokesmen have boasted repeatedly for years that Martinez operates the “most transparent administration” in the history of the state. But on the opening day of a First District Court trial over a civil lawsuit alleging the administration violated public records law, attorney Paul Kennedy aggressively questioned journalists on the witness stand about why they believed the governor was obligated to talk to them.
More than once as he was questioning former reporters and a former editor of Santa Fe Reporter, which filed a lawsuit in 2013, Kennedy referred to the “journalism racket.”
The Reporter’s suit accuses Martinez of violating the state’s open-records law by not providing documents requested by the weekly newspaper’s staff and by regularly failing to reply to requests for comments for stories. The suit claims Martinez’s spokesmen refused to respond to Reporter staff in retaliation for stories it published that were critical of the administration.
The three-day hearing is expected to include testimony by past and present administration officials, including Keith Gardner, Martinez’s chief of staff, who is expected to take the stand Friday.
Martinez herself is not on the witness list.
“Was it your impression that the governor had to talk to you?” Kennedy, a former state Supreme Court justice appointed by Martinez, asked Alexa Schirtzinger, a former Reporter editor.
“I think it’s an industrywide expectation,” Schirtzinger replied.
Former Reporter staff writer Joey Peters had a similar answer when Kennedy asked him, during cross-examination, “Did you think the Governor’s Office had an obligation to respond to you? What’s your basis for that belief?”
Schirtzinger, Peters and former Reporter writer Justin Horwath — now a reporter for The New Mexican — each testified about being frustrated in their attempts to get responses from Martinez’s spokesmen.
All three said the situation became worse in December 2012 after the paper published a large cache of emails that administration officials had sent from Martinez’s private campaign email accounts early in her first term. The Reporter got the emails from the Attorney General’s Office. The FBI later determined they had been hijacked by the governor’s former campaign manager, Jamie Estrada, who eventually served a short prison term for illegally obtaining the emails.
The journalists also testified about long delays in receiving documents requested under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. They sometimes waited months to receive records, the journalists said, and the documents they eventually were given often fell far short of what they had requested.
In one case, Peters said, he requested emails sent over a certain period of time from administration officials who used private accounts to conduct public business rather than their state government accounts. His request eventually yielded a single email, he said.
Peters filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office, which said the Governor’s Office had violated the open-records law.
During his cross-examination of Schirtzinger, Kennedy said she and her staff had “plotted to send test requests to the governor.”
The lawyer criticized Peters for asking Martinez’s spokesmen for comments on stories several hours before his press deadline. “That’s a pattern with you, isn’t it, to give a limited window to respond?” Kennedy asked.
Peters said he thought he always gave the spokesmen plenty of time to respond.
When Kennedy referred to Peters’ involvement in “the journalism racket” — the second time he used that phrase Wednesday — Peters responded, “I’ve never been involved in any racket,” evoking laughter in the courtroom.
Kennedy shot back, “You’ve been mobbed up with email thieves.”
Reporter lawyer Daniel Yohalem objected to the phrase “mobbed up,” and Judge Sarah Singleton upheld the objection.