Alibi V.28 No.47 • Nov 21-27, 2019 

On Assignment

Corruption, Tejana Style

Auditor’s investigation reveals issues

Corey Yazzie

Political corruption is a dominant theme in the never-ending and infinite news cycle that Americans are now able to access electronically, thanks to our overwhelmingly positive connection to the technology that binds the substance of our culture together in compelling 30 second teevee or YouTube spots.

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ve heard about President Trump’s conspiracy theory with regards to his political opponent, Uncle Joe Biden. Trump has engendered and then promoted a right wing fantasy that sees criminal activities emanating from the left. These activities are designed not only to remove the current placeholder from office, but also to advance the agenda of a “deep state” while lining the pocketbooks of folks actively involved in the hero’s usurpation. The Bidens are a perfect target for such nonsense.

The Bidens’ involvement with an Ukrainian banking organization and the fanciful notion that the Ukraine possesses a lost server that would prove that it was Hillary Clinton, and not Trump, who had foreign help manipulating the last presidential election has allowed Trump to conflate the two situations in a conspiratorial and totally insane talking point.

But wait there’s more. The House of Representatives is currently investigating the president—in full impeachment mode, and with competency and clarity, one would like to add—for abusing his presidential powers while in office.

Apparently those referrals to corruption and scandal, that mission of oversight and accountability, is now echoing itself within the New Mexico’s own political culture.

The Report

Late last week, the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) issued a missive to the press announcing the end to and results from an investigation into settlement payments made during the tenure of former governor Susana Martinez.

According to the press release, Auditor Brian Colon would announce the results of a special audit into what he termed “secret settlement pay outs” by the Martinez administration in the waning days of her administration.

The report found irregularities in the settlement of 12 of 18 cases examined. In particular, the lack of documentation in settled case files, extensions of confidentiality periods and excessive liquidated damages provisions caught eye of the state’s chief consumer watchdog, who termed these departures from strict state processes to be questionable, if not outright criminal. For sure, such activities were anomalous in an environment that should depend on transparency and documentation—Colon repeatedly told reporters at a news conference held on Monday, Nov. 18 in Albuquerque—especially when taxpayer-sourced money is being used to finance state legal settlements.

The News Conference

At a meeting at the local office of the OSA, Colon met with reporters and state officials about the report and went into details about his findings and what they meant for New Mexicans.

Colon’s conference points to a concerted effort by members of Susana Martinez’ administration to abuse their power in the process of overseeing and settling certain legal claims against the state.

That’s serious business that possibly cost the state more than $5 million. To learn more about the problem as Colon sees it, we attended the press conference and recorded most of it. Let’s listen in on the salient points here.

Colon began his discourse by categorizing the problem as an egregious one, saying to those gathered, “As you know, due to the severe allegations about how the General Service Division supervised the settlement process and subsequent payoffs, they spent millions of dollars in late 2018. So I initiated a special audit, a special audit to conduct an initial investigation and examination into secret settlement payoffs. This examination was about accountability, it was about transparency. It was about always making sure the administration always put the interest of taxpayers in front of his own.”

The State Auditor continued by remarking that he was “disappointed, disgusted and heartbroken” that he found that there was a lack of transparency in the processes and payouts that were examined in the audit. Colon also said that his office found instances of corruption beyond the original allegations of impropriety. Those additional references led his office to expand the investigation’s scope.

Overall 18 out-of-court settlements, all managed by the Martinez administration’s General Services Administration, were earmarked for thorough investigation by the Auditor’s office. Of those cases, 12 were found to be problematic and perhaps even criminal in nature. Colon said that what’s truly heartbreaking about those cases—which, as we mentioned before, cost state taxpayers more than $5 million—is that $2.7 million dollars of that settlement money was distributed “in secret, without process and without a proper investigation.”

The documents examined involved settlements to state employees. Included in the $2.7 million Colon says was innapproprieately allocated was $200,000 payment to Martinez’ former body guard Rueben Maynes. In another case complaints of sex discrimination and retaliation at the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Public Finance were resolved with an out of court settlement. Both cases lacked documentation and proof, the auditor said.

Colon’s Conclusion

The facts of the case, especially those found in the examination of the 12 cases in question, led Colon to conclude that there was an abuse of power going on. He pointedly and plainly told those gathered that, “There was an abuse of power. There was an abuse of power where the administration put its own interest and political legacy ahead of the best interest of taxpayers.

Two thirds of the documents examined by the OSA, Colon continued, “lacked necessary supporting documentation for settlements of their size, and further, lacked any documentation of investigation into allegations [that prompted the settlement] at all.”

Colon claims that in these cases “there’s virtually no proof in the records, in the files, as to why these high-dollar amounts were approved by the risk management division and General Services [Department].”

Colon added that he further concerned that internal controls were not followed and that procedure was somehow circumvented for political advantage. He said the settlements were related to political appointees of the former governor.

Outcomes

Before turning to the audience for questions from the press, Colon emphasized the scientific and impartial nature of the OSA investigation into the out-of-court settlement payments overseen by a waning Martinez administration. He emphasized that if it had been Democrats whose accountability and transparency had come under examination, he would still have done the job the only way he knows how; by being circumspect and scientific in his own processes, calling for accountability and pointedly telling constituents that such ethical lapses “cannot happen again.”

Though Colon concluded by telling those gathered that he had forwarded his findings about the Martinez’ administrations transgressions to the state Attorney General and relevant District Attorneys’ offices for possible prosecution, and again referred to the overall situation as an abuse of power. After that much-repeated assertion, many in the press corps had important questions to ask about the essence of the investigation.

When a reporter asked “who specifically abused their power,” Colon replied that “for us, the abuse of power is documented in many ways. The risk management division and general services authorized these checks. The directors of those [state agencies] were appointed by the [then] governor Susana Martinez.” The man from the teevee station followed up with a correlative question, asking Colon if he thought the governor abused her power. The auditor was a bit more coy in this response, answering carefully that, “I would go as far as saying that $2.7 million in checks were processed and written without a proper investigation.”

Weekly Alibi asked Colon if the former governor directly benefited from or had direct ties to the claims being settled in the secretive and unethical way discussed at the press conference and forming the background of the audit and subsequent report. He told this reporter, “I can’t speak to any benefit she received, but it looks like a matter of having her political agenda being advanced. I don’t have any direct knowledge [of a benefit to Martinez], but I am forwarding all this material to the proper authorities [for further investigation].”

Significantly—but not unreasonably, given the tone and scope of discussions revolving around governmental corruption on the national level—another reporter tellingly and skeptically asked Colon if the investigation and its initial outcome were the result of some kind of political stunt or partisan political monkey business. The state Auditor replied firmly, “My reaction to that would be disappointment. These are objective facts, that’s what the Office of the State Auditor relies on. I’m going to present certain facts to you; you’ll see the timeline, you’ll see the settlement dollars. You’ll see the documentation, or I should say, the lack of documentation that led to this investigation.”

With the report on its way to state law enforcement officials, it looks like the former heads of the Republican administration under Susana Martinez will face some reckoning at some point in the future, a future where Americans must also decide whether their President is also guilty of abusing his power for political gain.