State Auditor: secret state lawsuit settlements an ‘abuse of power’

Politics - Government

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – More than a dozen secret lawsuit settlements were paid out to state employees without investigation, costing New Mexico taxpayers millions of dollars.

That’s what State Auditor Brian Colón says his investigators found in a special audit sparked by a Larry Barker investigation.

“Clearly what we have here is an abuse of power, with people having their own political agenda, as opposed to having the public interest first,” Colón said during a Monday news conference, announcing the results of the special audit.

The audit’s release comes roughly six months after a three-month Larry Barker investigation revealed a group of former state employees sued and settled claims alleging harassment, hostile work environment, and unfair treatment in state government. Each of the lawsuits were settled in less than 30 days toward the end of Governor Susana Martinez’s administration, costing taxpayers $1.7 million dollars.

Larry Barker’s investigation revealed that the lawsuits were settled in order to protect Governor Martinez from the release of embarrassing information about her.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that these were expedited settlements in the best interest of the administration’s reputation,” Colón said during Monday’s news conference.

Beyond the settlements with the six state employees identified in Larry Barker’s investigation, Colón says his investigators found additional problems with other lawsuits rapidly settled by the Martinez administration.

Colón says in all, $2.7 million dollars was paid out in secret settlements across 12 cases from 2015, 2018 and 2019 In each case, Colón says the claims were not investigated.

“That lack of investigation and process leads me to only one conclusion; there was an abuse of power,” Colón said.

Of the cases reviewed by Colón’s audit team, only six settlements were carried out properly.

One case involved a settlement with Ruben Maynes, a once-member of Governor Martinez’s security detail. According to Colón, that case had no investigation, just a one-page letter threatening litigation.

“You can’t write a six figure check and not have a justification in the file,” said Colón. “49 I mean, $200-thousand, I found one sheet of paper, are you kidding me?”

Colón says he’s now forwarded the findings of the audit to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal prosecution.

“We’re talking a total of 2.7 million dollars in payouts, in secret of taxpayer dollars, there was virtually no proof in the files, and in the record as to why these high dollar amounts were approved by the risk management division,” Colón said.

When specifically asked who was abusing their power, Colón replied, “What we know is that the Risk Management Division and the General Services Division authorized these checks. The directors of those, they were appointed by the governor, Susana Martinez.”

KRQE News 13 reached out to former Gov. Susana Martinez to ask if she wanted to comment on the audit’s findings. As of 10 p.m. Monday evening, Martinez had not returned KRQE News 13’s call. In the past, Martinez has said she has no knowledge of the settlements.

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