State auditor investigates after $1.7 million paid in secret state settlements

New Mexico
Larry Barker insta_1559066943593.jpg.jpg

The State Auditor says his office is making it a priority to investigate secret state settlements paid out in the last days of Gov. Martinez’s administration. 

It all boils down to this: When the state forked over $1.7 million to settle cases with employees who claim they were treated unfairly, was it the right thing to do to save taxpayers’ money in the longrun? Or were they rushed through to keep damaging allegations about the former governor from going public?

The auditor aims to find out. 

“Secret processes are susceptible to abuse,” New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colon said on Tuesday.

Colon is speaking of the $1.7 million in secret state settlements that a Larry Barker investigation revealed last week. 

Six state workers filed claims with New Mexico’s Risk Management Office claiming harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation by then-State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. However, KRQE News 13 has learned that Risk Management did not assign investigators to look into whether the employees even had credible claims against the chief.

“The truth should come out eventually. The truth needs to come out. These settlements are cloaked in secrecy and the public should be able to see them,” Kassetas told KRQE News 13’s Larry Barker. 

Confidential sources say the cases were resolved in the final days of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration last year to keep damaging allegations against her under wraps. 

“We don’t know if whether those overrides took place in this situation, but we’re quite concerned that they did due to the nature and the timing of these settlements,” Colon said of the settlements Tuesday. 

In a settlement demand from December 5, 2018, attorney Linda Hemphill, who represented three employees with claims against the chief, referenced “damaging information about the governor professionally and personally,” suggesting it could “destroy” the governor’s reputation. She demanded more than $4 million to settle the case.

Sources say the information involved a secret tape recording of the governor’s husband Chuck Franco making explosive comments about his wife. 

“We can’t award settlements to protect reputations,” State Auditor Brian Colon said. “We can’t award settlements for political expediency.”

Now, the State Auditor says looking into this will be the main focus of his office over the next two to three months. 

“This is something that’s critical. Our office has been getting phone calls, taxpayers are concerned, and we’re going to respond to those concerns immediately,” Colon said. 

KRQE News 13 received a statement Tuesday from attorneys Linda Hemphill and Diane Garrity, saying in part, their clients, one of whom was the head of the governor’s security detail, are whistleblowers.

The former governor declined to go on camera for Larry Barker’s story, but did send a statement saying she had nothing to do with these settlements going through, and added, “It would be deeply disappointing if someone on the security detail chose to catalog personal information for their own benefit.” 

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