Ex-Gov. Susana Martinez is traveling a hard road, from anti-corruption district attorney running for governor to just another failed politician, one with skeletons in her closet that could result in criminal charges.
That’s the only conclusion to take from the state auditor’s report this week concerning a special audit of millions in secret settlements paid out by the state of New Mexico during the Martinez administration.
At a minimum, the governor used her power to help political appointees. In the last months of her two terms in office, three settlements that totaled $2 million were paid out to Public Safety Department employees with complaints against then-state police Chief Pete Kassetas, complete with confidentiality clauses designed to keep details secret beyond the limits in state law. He has denied the complaints and has said they should not have been paid.
It is possible that some of the settlements — auditors examined 18 totaling more than $5 million between 2015 and 2019 — violated state laws. The audit showed that $2.7 million was paid in cases with a lack of documentation. In cases involving more than $2.1 million, confidentiality clauses exceeded the six-month maximum allowed by law. In six settlements, the timing of the claims — they were settled too quickly for a reasonable investigation into complaints — raised concerns, according to State Auditor Brian Colón.
This, from the woman whose scorn for the man she replaced, Bill Richardson, was obvious as she chased first the GOP nomination and, later, the job of governor. He was plagued with allegations of corruption in connection with a “pay-to-play” scandal involving state investments; though never charged with a crime, the notoriety cost the two-term Democratic governor a spot in the Obama Cabinet. Now, findings from the special audit are being referred to Attorney General Hector Balderas and First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna, as well as the new State Ethics Commission.
From prosecutors, citizens need to know whether crimes were committed — were the settlements basically bribes, paid to protect the reputation of the administration and of Martinez in particular? Was state law followed? Is there any possibility of reclaiming tax dollars in cases of suspect settlements? Were settlements made to hide damaging comments about Martinez’s personal life?
The answer to that question could be found in a cellphone recording missing from the records in the Risk Management Division — which oversees the handling of lawsuits against the state. The call was between Martinez’s husband, Chuck Franco, and former state police Lt. Julia Armendariz, formerly head of the governor’s security detail. Armendariz, who had filed a complaint against Kassetas, revealed the Franco recording during mediation with the state last December; her case was settled within days. Some Martinez allies believe that the governor did not fire the troubled state police chief in part to keep the recording under wraps. Unless it surfaces, citizens can’t know.
What is known, however, is that millions of dollars were spent without proper documentation or investigation, with details of the settlement hidden.
The Risk Management Division, overseen by State General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz, has moved to improve the handling of claims and to increase transparency, posting settlement details as soon as the law allows. Those are welcome steps, although lawmakers should do more to open up settlements — eliminate confidentiality clauses, for example.
Not only do taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent in real time, they also need to know what bad actors work in state government — repeated complaints against a person or agency will serve as warning signals. Hiding them eliminates their efficacy to prevent future misdeeds.
The audit, by examining patterns and how such patterns differed from how the system should work, is helping shed light on what happened under Martinez’s watch. With potential investigations ahead, clarity about what happened is in reach. Some day soon, Susana Martinez could be called to answer — finally — for how millions of dollars were spent on her watch. The anti-corruption district attorney would welcome such a conclusion.