Gov. Susana Martinez, newly elected chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association and recently touted as a possible contender for vice president, found herself attracting a different sort of national attention Friday after the release of a recording in which she told law enforcement dispatchers that police should not investigate disturbance complaints against her group at a Santa Fe hotel.
Martinez’s recorded dealings with police, dispatchers and hotel employees made her a wide target for criticism Friday. Her detractors and political enemies accused her of trying to bully other government employees to thwart an investigation.
The confrontation began about 1:30 a.m. Sunday following the governor’s holiday staff party in a hotel ballroom when an employee of the hotel called police to report troublesome guests “partying” in a room and to ask that police escort them off the property.
“They’ve been warned already and they’re still not quieting down. They were told to leave and we were told to call you guys,” the employee said. A dispatcher asked if the guests had weapons. “I just know that they were throwing bottles off the balcony, I believe, earlier,” the employee replied.
After learning of the complaint, Martinez personally intervened, prompting a hotel desk clerk to call authorities again, so that Martinez could speak to a dispatcher. After she was handed the phone, Martinez invoked her title and demanded to know from a dispatcher who had complained about her group.
“Hi, this is Gov. Susana Martinez,” she says, then asks why police are coming to the Eldorado Hotel and who made the complaint they had received.
“I can’t give you that information, ma’am,” a dispatcher says.
Martinez replied: “Why can you not? It’s public record. Give it to me.”
At another point in the recording, while she’s on hold with a dispatcher, she can be heard asking a hotel employee, “Has there been another resident who’s been making complaints?”
Told that was the case, Martinez pushed harder. “But no room number?”
“I’m not allowed to say. I’m sorry.”
“Tell me, what room number?” Martinez said. “Are they on the fourth floor?” As the conversation went on, Martinez persisted: “I want to know who they are.”
“I’m not allowed,” the hotel worker said. Martinez shot back: “Oh, you can tell it to the police, but they won’t tell you? You won’t tell me? I’ll get it from the cops.”
At one point in her conversation with a dispatcher, she said: “I’m sorry, there is no one on the balcony, and there’s no one throwing bottles off the balcony. And if they were, it was about six hours ago.” The governor’s voice was calm, though her speech sounded slurred. She occasionally was officious and sarcastic as she spoke to dispatchers.
Martinez issued a statement Friday evening apologizing for her actions and said snowballs, not bottles, were being thrown off the balcony.
“I want to apologize for the conduct of my staff the night of our holiday party,” she wrote. “There was apparently a party in a hotel room earlier in the night that was disruptive. Someone was also throwing snowballs from a balcony. None of that should have happened and I was not aware of the extent of the behavior, until recently. And that behavior is not acceptable.
“I also want to admit that I made a mistake when I went to speak to the receptionist and asked her about the complaint. I should not have gotten involved in trying to resolve the situation, nor should I have spoken to the dispatcher on the phone. I was wrong to speak with them like that, and I apologize.”
In an appearance on the Albuquerque television station KOB-TV's Friday evening newscast, the governor said she was “absolutely not” trying to abuse her power as governor.
“I just wanted to know what was the situation, how can we resolve it, explain it to the receptionist. It was very quiet when we went up there. And we simply were going to eat pizza and leave.”
Martinez told KOB that she had 1 1/2 cocktails over four or five hours at the party.
Santa Fe police responded to the hotel, but by then the staff said the officers’ assistance wasn’t necessary. Matt Ross, a spokesman for the city government, said police did not file a report about the incident because the hotel staff had “handled the situation.”
As for why city police officers did not write a report, Ross said: “Obviously, that’s a complicated factor, but the police made their decision based on their talks with hotel staff and hotel security. They didn’t let the fact that the governor was there impact their decision.”
Police officers referred all questions to Ross. The hotel manager did not respond to a request for comment.
The episode involving the governor attracted a flurry of attention on social media after The New Mexican posted a recording of the calls and a story on its website Friday morning. Democrats at the state and national level attacked Martinez, a 56-year-old former prosecutor, as someone who considers herself above the law.
“We are deeply disappointed in Gov. Susana Martinez’s behavior, but, unfortunately, we are not at all surprised,” said Joe Kabourek, executive director of the Democratic Party of New Mexico.
Martinez’s spokesman, Chris Sanchez, issued a statement earlier Friday in which the governor expressed an element of contrition.
“Gov. Martinez regrets the way this situation was handled by her and her staff and will further address that later today,” Sanchez wrote. Asked in phone and email messages for particulars of when she would speak about what had happened, Sanchez did not respond.
Sanchez in his initial email also provided a description of the party involving the governor that was far more tame than the one described by hotel employees. He described a gathering in the hotel room with a half-dozen people eating pizza and drinking Cokes.
“On Saturday evening, the governor held her annual staff holiday party in a hotel ballroom. There was a live band, food, dancing, and more than 200 guests,” Sanchez wrote.
“The governor spent most of the time dancing with her husband, Chuck [Franco], and the many children who attended with their parents. Once the band wrapped up for the night and the governor and staff helped clean up the ballroom, she and Chuck went to a staff member’s private room to eat pizza along with several other guests.
“Unbeknownst to the governor, there had been complaints about noise and someone throwing what turned out to be snowballs from the balcony of that room earlier in the night while the governor was in the ballroom.
“While the governor was in the hotel room, she was informed a complaint had been recently made, and was also made aware of the earlier complaints. At that time, the other guests left and the governor went downstairs to the front desk to find out more information about the complaints and assure the hotel staff that those who had caused those issues had long ago left, and there was no longer a problem.
“While she was downstairs, she took a call from the Santa Fe Police to inquire about and respond to the complaints. The State Police detail was present with the governor and believed the situation was under control.”
Ross said one part of the governor’s account was wrong.
“In the interest of accuracy in the record, we are correcting an error in the statement from the governor’s spokesman. At no point in the evening did the Santa Fe police call Gov. Martinez for any reason,” Ross said.
The past two months have ranged from wrenching to heady for Martinez. She acknowledged that her political adviser, Jay McCleskey, the man she credits for her election as governor, is being investigated by the FBI for payments from Martinez’s campaign and inaugural committee to companies that he controlled.
Then Martinez and the rest of New Mexico watched as one of her political allies, former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, pleaded guilty to stealing campaign donations to feed a gambling addiction. Duran entered the Santa Fe County jail on Friday to begin a 30-day sentence. Martinez’s troubles at the Eldorado Hotel pushed Duran’s story off the top of newspaper websites and television newscasts.
Duran’s conviction and the federal investigation of McCleskey were tempered to a degree by Martinez winning election as chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, a fundraising apparatus of the GOP executives.
She also got a morale boost when Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate, said during an appearance in South Carolina that Martinez was vice presidential timber. Her name has been mentioned occasionally in other Republican circles as a possibility for vice president, though Martinez herself acknowledged that the last GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, did not interview her.
She has said she has no interest in being vice president. Even so, the Democratic Governors Association pounced on Martinez’s conduct at the Eldorado Hotel to pronounce as dead her chances of landing on the GOP presidential ticket next year.
“Today, Gov. Martinez’s vice presidential aspirations went out the window faster than you can say ‘pizza party,’ ” said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the rival governors association. “We look forward to the nation’s Republican governors and candidates campaigning with an RGA chair who attempted to use her power to intimidate local police.”
Similar digs at Martinez abounded on Facebook and on comment boards under news stories about her telling police they needn’t investigate the Eldorado Hotel’s complaints about her group.
In her statement Friday evening, Martinez said: “I believe in people accepting responsibility and that is why I’m owning what happened, and I sincerely apologize.”