New Mexico Legislature begins probe into abuse allegations against Trujillo

Carl Trujillo

Leaders from the state House of Representatives launched an investigation Tuesday into allegations state Rep. Carl Trujillo sexually harassed a lobbyist several years ago.

The decision was just the latest turn in a controversy that has inflamed an already heated Democratic Party primary election in northern Santa Fe County and poses a first test for the Legislature’s new harassment policy amid a broader cultural shift around sexual misconduct in politics.

Trujillo has called the claims lies and argued that the allegations are nothing more than a political attack.

But the lawmaker has said he would welcome an investigation. And the lawyer for his accuser, Laura Bonar, formally requested the Legislature launch an inquiry Tuesday.

In an open letter last week, Bonar said Trujillo had sexually harassed her on multiple occasions while she was lobbying for Animal Protection Voters several years ago. She wrote Trujillo had touched her inappropriately and sexually propositioned her. Bonar contends that after she rebuffed his advances, Trujillo proceeded to cut off communication with the group as they worked on a bill during the 2014 legislative session.

Elected in 2012, Trujillo has been a staunch advocate for animal welfare legislation and continued to work with the group.

But its executive director, Elisabeth Jennings, said she believed Bonar’s account and that the group would not endorse anyone in House District 46, where Trujillo faces challenger Andrea Romero. Meanwhile, the organization’s current lobbyist, Jessica Johnson, said Bonar had told her in 2015 that Trujillo had acted inappropriately toward her. And another lobbyist who has worked with the organization said Bonar told her of these allegations in 2014.

Late last week, state Rep. Deborah Armstrong said she is aware of two women who said Trujillo sexually harassed them.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton and Minority Leader Nate Gentry met with outside lawyers Tuesday and decided the allegations should be investigated. The group referred the matter to a subcommittee of the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee. Composed of two Democrats and two Republicans from the House, the group will probe Bonar’s allegations with outside attorneys.

If the subcommittee finds probable cause that Trujillo violated the Legislature’s policies, it will refer the matter to another subcommittee, which could then hold a public hearing. The process could ultimately lead to reprimand, censure or expulsion.

It’s unclear how long the investigation might last. Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, said there is no timeline in policy or law for the subcommittee to complete its work.

In the meantime, subcommittee members — who the Legislative Council Service did not identify — are barred from talking about the case.

The investigation is bound to cast a shadow over Trujillo’s re-election bid. The race for District 46 has already proved heated, serving as a proxy for a broader dispute between some local residents and neighboring pueblos.

Romero has also come under scrutiny amid allegations of spending improprieties at a nonprofit group she previously ran.

Describing the allegations against him as vicious lies, Trujillo said: “We are more than prepared to prove these politically-motivated allegations false.”

“I’m troubled that we’ve created a culture where we’re expected to believe anything someone says based solely on their gender, and in which I’m expected to pretend there is any truth to these allegations solely out of political correctness,” he said in an email.

Late Tuesday, three fellow Democrats in the House called on Trujillo to resign.

“We want all public employees, advocates, lobbyists and the general public to be able to walk the halls of the Capitol, and engage with elected officials in any setting, in complete safety and to be treated with the respect and dignity they well deserve,” state Reps. Miguel García, Christine Trujillo and Debra Sariñana wrote in an open letter. “We cannot allow the public trust to be eroded by our silence and wanted you to know why we feel compelled to step forward.”

Earlier in the day, Romero said he should step down.

“I believe Laura,” she said. “I think it’s incredibly hard for women to come out against sexual harassment. I believe it’s a violation of public trust, what we’ve been reading about, and an abuse of power.”

Whatever happens, the investigation is the first big test of the Legislature’s new harassment policy, which lawmakers adopted days before this year’s session began in January.

The policy expanded on a decade-old code that seemed only to apply to legislative staff. The new policy extends to lawmakers and lobbyists and calls for having outside lawyers review allegations.

But some have argued it still relies too heavily on lawmakers to police their own colleagues, leaving legislative leaders to decide whether to pursue an investigation.