An Albuquerque woman who says she recently settled a claim against the state General Services Department filed a lawsuit this week challenging a New Mexico law requiring such settlements to be kept secret for six months.
The complaint, filed Tuesday in the 2nd Judicial District Court in Bernalillo County, says Shani Madden seeks a judgment declaring the provision unconstitutional, which would allow her and others to speak freely about settlement deals with the state without fear of being charged with a misdemeanor crime.
The provision “has a substantial chilling effect on the free speech of private individuals like Madden who have pursued claims against state agencies,” the lawsuit says.
Her attorney, Ken Stalter of Albuquerque, said Madden has not been charged with violating the law prohibiting her from revealing the settlement amount she received last week, but “she wants to be able to talk about it without fear that this statute could be brought against her.”
General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz, named as a defendant, said in a statement the agency would not comment specifically on Madden’s complaint.
While claimants who agree to resolve their cases against the state with payouts are informed about the secrecy law, he said, “they aren’t threatened with criminal prosecution. Neither [the General Services Department] nor [the Risk Management Division, which handles payouts] has authority to enforce the law.
“Claimants in [Risk Management Division] settlements aren’t prohibited by the RMD records law from talking about their claims,” Ortiz added.
But Madden’s complaint cites an Aug. 12 statement by Douglas Gardner, a contracted attorney with the Risk Management Division, noting the so-called 180-day gag order “applies to ‘Any person who reveals records.’ This would include Plaintiff.”
According to her complaint, Madden’s settlement stems from allegations of a public records law violation. She had submitted a request in January for records on private law firms hired by the Risk Management Division so she could investigate a possible judicial conflict of interest in her divorce case, the complaint says.
The General Services Department initially failed to supply the records, the complaint says, so she sued the agency in April. And in response, General Services turned over the documents she had requested and agreed to settle her lawsuit with a payment.
Her new complaint comes shortly after Ortiz announced his department will begin publishing this month the details of settlement deals on the state government’s online Sunshine Portal. His announcement followed controversial reports of $1.7 million in settlement payments the previous administration had secretly distributed in December to plaintiffs alleging sexual harassment by then-state police Chief Pete Kassetas.
General Services Department spokesman Thom Cole said technical issues have delayed the start of Ortiz’s initiative, but the agency is working to launch the settlement portion of the Sunshine Portal by the end of August.