Ain’t no sunshine when the settlement data is gone
The state is legally required to report millions of dollars in settlements immediately. That’s not happening, and we’re trying to find out why.
A screenshot of the portal taken on Sept. 11 at 10:17 a.m. showing that no settlements were published for a month on the portal managed by the Risk Management Division in the General Services Department. In the days since Source NM inquiry, 10 settlements, all dated for August, have been added to the portal (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)
In recent months, The New Mexico General Services Department has inconsistently updated its database tracking tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in settlements – and has given no answers as to why.
The sprawling state agency houses, among many things, property and printing services.
One division, the Risk Management Department, acts as an insurer for property and liability for state agencies. This can include covering property damage, sexual harassment, discrimination and other alleged misconduct.
It’s unclear who is directing the Risk Management Division. An undated directory shows the position as empty, and the website notes that the position is “To Be Determined.” According to the New Mexico Sunshine Portal, the General Services Department has a vacancy rate of 20% – that’s 72 vacancies within 321 positions.
The agency also publishes a portal noting what legal action the state settled, with who and for how much. Whenever the state settles a legal action, it’s paid with public money.
Despite repeated written requests for comment, the agency, while acknowledging the request, did not make anyone available for an interview regarding its policies and procedures around updating the database.
On Sept. 11, the portal had no new entries for one month since Aug. 11 – which would be a significant gap.
According to a Source NM analysis, in the past three years the largest stretch without any settlements filed was 14 days. This happened in both 2023 and 2020 from April 17 to May 1. In 2021 and 2022, that gap was shorter, with just 10 days without a settlement recorded in both years.
Since Source NM’s inquiry on Monday, someone at the agency updated the portal to include 17 settlements. Seven of those settlements were uploaded between noon and 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14. Those 17 new settlements total $392, 770.
This failure to update the database may be a violation of New Mexico state law, which broadened transparency around settlements, said Melanie Majors, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
“This is mandated by state law, and somebody is violating state law by not doing it,” Majors said.
New Mexico passed a law in 2020 removing a six-month confidentiality period on settlements, now mandating the immediate release of settlement agreements, when it is signed by both parties.
The reform came after the high-profile settlements which cost taxpayers $1.7 million in the final days of former New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez’s administration.
Majors noted that the effort to pass the law had unanimous support from legislators and the current administration.
“Everyone felt this was important that this information should be made available, so where is the internal disconnect coming from that is keeping it from the public?” she asked.
So far this year, the state’s paid $17.1 million in settlements, according to a Source NM analysis.
“We know that the department pays millions of dollars each year to defend and settle damage claims,” Majors said. “The public has a right to know who’s receiving that money.”
We will update the story if we receive any statement or additional comment.
What exactly happened?
Last month, Source NM observed that settlement agreements were added to the site, weeks after they had been agreed and announced in courtrooms.
Following one settlement with a former employee at the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, Source NM found that there was at least one period where no settlements were added for 14 days. On Aug. 15, the agency published 18 settlements, some signed back in July.
The settlements appear on the portal with “release dates” that correspond to when they were signed by both parties, including release dates from July. The portal does not note when items are uploaded.
Source NM reached out to the person listed as the agency spokesperson both on the website at the time, and on the portal – Thom Cole.
Cole, who reached out after the story’s publication, told Source NM he left the agency in January 2023.
Sometime after Aug.15, the agency updated the website, removing Cole from the spokesperson position – but did not change the contact information on the portal.
On Sept. 11, Source NM reached out to interim spokesperson Rod Crawley, requesting an interview to clarify why the portal had not been updated for a month, and understand why Cole was still listed as the contact on the portal.
Crawley said in an email he had forwarded the request to the “legal bureau for the specifics on the Sunshine Portal” in an email and said he would reach back out.
When Source NM emailed Crawley in a follow-up Sept. 13, an out of office email said he would be unavailable until Sept. 21.
Interview requests emailed to other GSD employees, and submitted on the contact form went unreturned Sept. 14.
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