Members of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s staff, including her communications director, have private messaging apps on their government-issued cellphones that use end-to-end encryption designed to keep conversations secret.
The governor’s press secretary, Nora Meyers Sackett, said only one of the staffers has sent a message on such an app, and it occurred only one time, more than two years ago, when no other form of communication was available.
“Tripp used [WhatsApp] in February 2019 to communicate with a Cabinet member who was traveling internationally and had no other way to be in contact,” Sackett wrote in an email, referring to Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s chief spokesman. “He has not used it on any other occasion.”
Sackett herself downloaded WhatsApp, which has end-to-end encryption built into it, but said she’s never used it.
The revelation that employees in the Governor’s Office have private messaging apps on their taxpayer-funded cellphones comes after the office of Attorney General Hector Balderas launched an investigation into use of the Signal app, another encrypted messaging service, by the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Searchlight New Mexico reported the child welfare agency used the app to discuss a wide range of official business over the past year and that employees were routinely deleting encrypted messages, which might have violated New Mexico’s public records laws. Two employees who claim they were fired for raising concerns about the deletion of messages have since filed a lawsuit against the agency under the New Mexico Whistlebower Protection Act.
Matt Nerzig, another spokesman for Lujan Grisham, was asked in late April if any other state government agency, aside from CYFD, used the Signal app. He responded in an email: “no.”
But it turns out CYFD employees are not the only state government workers who have private messaging apps on their phones.
A review of cellphone numbers issued to employees in the Governor’s Office showed at least four staffers — Stelnicki; Sackett; Matt Ruybal, who serves as constituent relations director; and Children’s Cabinet Director Mariana Padilla — have such apps. Stelnicki, Sackett and Ruybal have WhatsApp, and Padilla has Signal.
Padilla did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
“I am on the road right now. Could I schedule … another time to talk?” Padilla said during a brief telephone interview Tuesday.
Sackett wrote in an email Wednesday she would answer questions on behalf of Padilla, who wields considerable influence with the governor, according to Searchlight, which reported Padilla was in charge of Lujan Grisham’s New Mexico congressional office for six years when Lujan Grisham served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I understand you’d like to speak with [Padilla] directly but it’s her prerogative to defer inquiries to the media team,” Sackett wrote.
According to Sackett, CYFD sent Padilla an “invitation” to join the app, which she downloaded onto her phone but never used.
“She did not use the application in her correspondence with agency staff and leadership as she had no occasion to,” Sackett wrote. “The existence of an app is not the same thing as the utilization of an app. That is the extent of her involvement with the app.”
Lujan Grisham became aware CYFD was using the app only after it was reported by Searchlight, and that’s when the Governor’s Office directed the agency to cease using it, Sackett wrote.
Sackett did not respond when asked why Padilla didn’t inform the governor of its use or why Padilla still appears as an active user.
In an earlier email, Sackett provided a screenshot of Stelnicki’s “chats” on WhatsApp that she contends shows the first and only time he used the app was on Feb. 20, 2019. The screenshot shows a partial message with Julie Jones, who had been picked to head the state Corrections Department but withdrew her candidacy Feb. 26, 2019.
Sackett downloaded WhatsApp in 2019 to communicate with the London-based communications staff of Virgin Galactic ahead of an event they were jointly planning, she wrote.
“Most Europeans use WhatsApp to text instead of built-in message apps,” she wrote. “I never ended up using it and then deleted the app from my phone.”
Sackett wrote that Ruybal, the constituent relations director, has never used WhatsApp, even though his number appears active.
“It’s a state-owned phone number so it’s possible a previous owner used the number to set up an account? Not sure,” she wrote. “But Matt Ruybal does not use the app.”
Though Sackett wrote that she, Stelnicki and Ruybal don’t use the app, the messaging service shows all three of their numbers as active.
WhatsApp also shows Brian Blalock, Cabinet secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department, continues to have an active account. The department stopped using the app April 29.
“I still get the ‘XXXX is on Signal!’ notifications on my work phone … even though I have not used Signal for work purposes since April 29, 2021,” CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst wrote in an email. “So that function that shows Brian is still ‘on’ Signal appears to just show if the app is installed and the user logged in.”