Vincent Martinez

Vincent Martinez. Courtesy photo

The chief of staff of the state Public Regulation Commission abruptly resigned Wednesday, just days after the commission filed a controversial lawsuit against The New Mexican and then quickly withdrew it.

Vincent Martinez, who had received criticism for his handling of the lawsuit against the newspaper, submitted his resignation Wednesday during a closed-door executive session of the five-member elected body. His letter said his last day in the office would be Wednesday, though he would remain on the state payroll until Aug. 28 while he used up remaining paid leave.

Martinez left the meeting early, during the executive session, and left the building sometime before the commission resumed its open meeting. He couldn’t be reached for comment on his resignation.

When commissioners returned to the public session, they said they had discussed “a personnel matter” as well as the lawsuit against the newspaper. But Commissioner Sandy Jones, D-Williamsburg, told The New Mexican that Martinez’s departure was unrelated to the lawsuit, which sought to prevent publication of “confidential documents” inadvertently released to a reporter as part of the response to a public records request. Last week, three commissioners said the body should drop the lawsuit, saying there was little chance for its success.

Martinez has long ties to the Public Regulation Commission, and Wednesday was the second time he had quit the chief of staff job amid controversy. He resigned the position in August 2002 in the wake of what was described as a “bitter power struggle among commissioners.” Then-commissioner Jerome Block Sr. told a reporter at the time that Lynda Lovejoy, a current commissioner who then chaired the public body, was "trying to get at me by getting rid of Vince.”

In the early 1990s, Martinez had worked as an executive assistant to Block at the now-defunct State Corporation Commission, which was merged into the Public Regulation Commission.

He was hired for his most recent stint in the $90,000-a-year job in September 2013.

Even before the controversy erupted over lawsuit against The New Mexican and the release of documents, Martinez apparently was looking for another job. He was one of 33 applicants for the position of Bernalillo County manager, The Albuquerque Journal reported early this month.

Commission Chairwoman Karen Montoya, D-Albuquerque, wouldn’t comment on what exactly was said during the executive session Wednesday. She said the commission will immediately start the process of naming an interim chief of staff as well as recruiting a permanent replacement for Martinez.

In a news release Wednesday, Montoya and Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, wished Martinez luck. Montoya thanked him for “his many years of service” to the commission.

Two commissioners praised Martinez’s work. Commissioner Patrick Lyons, R-Cuervo, said in the news release, “Vince did a great job. He will be missed.”

And Jones, in an interview after the meeting, agreed. “Vince was a valuable manager,” he said.

Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, who has been highly critical of Martinez, said after the meeting, “It’s time to rebuild and repair. Change is always good.”

Martinez had taken responsibility for inadvertently releasing material to The New Mexican that included a coal supply agreement and other documents filed by Public Service Company of New Mexico as part of the utility’s request for approval of a plan to shut down two of four coal-burning units at the San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico.

The company had filed the documents as “confidential,” though a hearing officer had ordered in June that all documents filed in case are public records. The hearing officer had yet to rule on a request by PNM to designate the documents as confidential at the time they were released to The New Mexican.

A state district judge last week declined to issue a restraining order preventing The New Mexican from publishing the documents. The commission, as well as PNM and two coal companies that had joined the legal action, filed motions to withdraw. The paper has filed a counterclaim against the commission and the companies, seeking to recover legal fees and damages. The New Mexican last week began publishing the documents on its website.

Martinez never publicly said who authorized the filing of the commission’s lawsuit.

Martinez, a retired colonel in the state National Guard, was director of the Transportation and Pipeline Division for seven years before he served as chief of staff for the commission from 2001-03.

In 1999, during Martinez’s time as transportation director, a bus from a Santa Fe-based transportation company called Shuttlejack, owned by former state Democratic Party chairman Ray Sena, crashed on Hyde Park Road as it was returning from an outing by schoolchildren at the Santa Fe ski basin. A National Transportation Safety Board inspection determined the brakes had failed. Killed in that crash were an 11-year-old student and an adult.

According to news accounts at the time, Martinez’s division — which was responsible for making sure the inspection papers were properly filled out — had received complaints about Shuttlejack and other transportation businesses operated by Sena before the crash. Sena eventually served two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

In his more recent tenure as the Public Regulation Commission's chief of staff, Martinez oversaw 156 full-time positions in Santa Fe as well as the state Firefighters Training Academy in Socorro.

Contact Steve Terrell at sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at tinyurl.com/roundhouseroundup.

The resignation comes after the commission released confidential documents to The New Mexican that resulted in a lawsuit.