Originally published on Source New Mexico on December 9th, 2022
by Megan Gleason
Almost a year after New Mexico Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto was accused of sexual harassment, he’s set to lose his position on the Senate Rules Committee when the 2023 Legislature begins Jan. 17.
On Thursday, the Senate Committees’ Committee did something unusual — it met outside of the regular Legislature calendar to quickly rearrange legislators’ positions on various standing committees.
This meeting came about 10 months after a lobbyist filed accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) back in February. Multiple other women came forward with similar stories in the months following.
Final conclusions for the investigation into the accusations against Ivey-Soto were kept private, though a leaked copy of the report verified that at least two instances of his conduct broke the anti-harassment policy.
He’s fallen from positions of power as a lawmaker since and continues to be moved around, with this most recent move to get him off the influential Rules Committee — a committee he used to chair.
The Committees’ Committee passed an approval for Ivey-Soto to be removed from his Rules seat, an important commission that decides priority and scheduling aspects of bills during the legislative session, and moved him to the Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee.
The Committees’ Committee only has three Republican members, and two of them objected to Ivey-Soto’s removal — Gregory Baca (R-Belen) and Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho).
The Senate will need to pass this again when the session starts in January for it to immediately take effect.
Senate Pro Tem Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) said the meeting was convened in order to get organized and prepare to hire new staff in time for the Legislature. In an interview with Source NM afterward, she said that removing Ivey-Soto from the Rules Commission and general meeting overall doesn’t have a direct connection with the misconduct accusations.
“We already dealt with that. We dealt with that weeks ago. We were going to have a Committees’ Committee to remove him, but he resigned himself,” she said. “So that’s already been done. That’s not why this committee met today.”
Stewart said that at her request, Ivey-Soto’s already stepped down as chair of the Senate Rules Committee and chair of the interim New Mexico Finance Authority committee.
Now to serve on the Rules Committee, if approved in January, are Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) as chair, Sen. Brenda McKenna (D-Corrales) and Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos). Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) will be removed along with Ivey-Soto.
There have also been public calls to remove Ivey-Soto from the Senate altogether. Stewart declined to comment on that topic.
Mario Jimenez is the director of New Mexico’s Common Cause division, a voting rights organization that sends lobbyists to the Roundhouse. He pointed out that Ivey-Soto is still a state senator with constituents to serve and said he hopes Ivey-Soto’s good faith efforts, like the previous resignations, continue.
“I think it’s pretty clear that he too would like to see a resolution,” he said.
UPDATING THE ANTI-HARASSMENT POLICY
Ivey-Soto’s harassment investigation seemingly prompted an initiative to update the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy, though there have been some delays. Stewart said lawmakers will attempt to amend the policy on Monday, Dec. 12 at the Legislative Council meeting.
Rep. Daymon Ely (D-Corrales) drafted additional details about lodging complaints against members of the Legislature, which is what the lawmakers will be reviewing and deciding on.
The proposed changes would help decide on tied votes by adding more voting members to different committees. It would also add a timeline to the process, ensuring that investigative reports are submitted within 45 days to lawmakers and special counsel, who would determine if there’s probable cause behind complaints.
If there’s no probable cause on a complaint, it would be dropped and a public report would be published. If there is, a formal hearing would convene within 45 days and an ethics subcommittee would make a decision.
THE POTENTIAL CHANGES
The drafted policy, if adopted, would add a few new rules to the procedures that would occur if anyone in the Legislature is accused of violations of the anti-harassment policy. The changes are:
- Special outside counsel — experienced in discrimination law, not just employee law — and legislative leaders would determine if a complaint needs to be looked into by an investigative subcommittee
- An independent, licensed attorney with experience in harassment claims would become chair and a voting member of the investigative subcommittee
- Special counsel investigating the complaint would submit a report to the investigative subcommittee within 45 days of being hired. If that’s not possible, the counsel would keep all parties informed of how much more time is needed with updates every 15 days
- The investigation would be closed if the ethics subcommittee decides there’s no probable cause, and an interim ethics committee would publish a public report on the decision within 10 days
- If the ethics subcommittee decides there is probable cause, the standing committee would decide on the matter during the Legislature. Otherwise, an interim committee would set a formal hearing within 45 days, unless there’s evidence showing the need to extend that. An independent attorney, retired judge or justice would serve as chair and a voting member of the hearing committee
- Any ethics committees still have to follow the rules of the respective legislative standing committees
These changes are something that will affect both the state House and Senate, Jimenez said, and legislators need to rebuild trust with the public.
Jimenez said future investigations need to be more transparent. But still, the newly drafted rules wouldn’t require any public disclosure unless a case is closed with no probable cause.
“Whenever meetings are being held behind closed doors, in secret, it leads to questions and quite often leads to assumptions,” he said, “and, as a result, a loss of trust in those who are making these calls and these important decisions that are going to be affecting the general public.”
Lawsuit: Governor threatened retaliation for records request – By Morgan Lee Associated Press
A former state senator says he was threatened by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham through an emissary with “escalating consequences” if he did not withdraw a request by his law firm for public records concerning the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
Attorney and former legislator Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque filed the complaint with a state District Court in Albuquerque, renewing a 2020 request for email correspondence among advisors to the governor, Lujan’s travel records and more under provisions of the state Inspection of Public Records Act.
The lawsuit alleges that Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe visited Candelaria’s office in Dec. 10, 2020, and told Candelaria that Lujan Grisham said there would be escalating consequences if the public records request was not rescinded.
Maddy Hayden, communications director at the governor’s office, called the allegations “wholly baseless and without merit,” in an email. Wirth declined to comment on the matter.
Contacted Friday, Candelaria said he rescinded the public records request in 2020 out of concern that possible retaliation might disrupt his work in the Legislature on behalf of political constituents or even affect his husband’s employment at a state-run hospital.
The 35-year-old former lawmaker said the lawsuit aims to ensure the governor can’t sidestep any eligible requests for public documents or inquiries into her administration’s response to the pandemic.
“Where she crossed the line is in saying, ‘Withdraw this or else,'” Candelaria said.
Candelaria teamed up with Republican lawmakers to successfully challenge the governor and defend the Legislature’s authority over spending priorities for more than $1 billion in federal pandemic aid, arguing the case before the state Supreme Court in 2021.
Candelaria ended his affiliation with the Democratic Party a year ago and stepped down from his Senate seat in October, roughly halfway through a four-year term in office, to devote more time to starting a family.
NM water experts: Upcoming legislative session ‘existentially important’ – By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
A group of local experts says the upcoming legislative session represents a crucial pivot point for the state’s water future.
The New Mexico Water Ambassadors, a group convened at the direction of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, has met since June to come up with recommendations to handle the state’s water crisis.
Mike Hamman recently left the Interstate Stream Commission to become the State Engineer. He leads the task force that will call on the Legislature to, among other things, boost capacity and authority for the state’s water agencies and also revamp its planning strategy for water resiliency, which the group said is still based in the 1930s.
“I think it’s existentially important that we make these changes,” said Norm Gaume, president of Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates and task force member, testified during a meeting last week. “It will be the governor and the 2023 legislature that we’re depending on to actually make the pivot.”
The Southwestern climate is increasingly arid due to human-caused climate change. Projections by leading experts anticipate a 25% reduction in the available water supply due to climate change.
Meanwhile, the state is embroiled in a water lawsuit with Texas. Local experts said last legislative session that lawsuits over water rights will only increase as supply shrinks.
The group publicly described some of what they hope the New Mexico Legislature will enact to adapt to an increasingly arid climate. The group has yet to release its full list of recommendations. A spokesperson said they should be made public in about two weeks. But Gaume summarized them
He said the Office of the State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission need better technology, more staff and greater reach to monitor and enforce water usage and quality.
John D’ Antonio, resigned as State Engineer post in November 2021 due to a lack of staffing, he told the Albuquerque Journal at the time.
And Gaume said the office has been desperately understaffed since positions were cut during the Gov. Susana Martinez administration.
“The agencies need more staff and they need the resources,” he said. “They can’t even utilize the existing statutory tools that the legislature has passed over the last several years.”
The incoming Legislature will have “copious” infrastructure money, he said, and has allocated money for numerous local water infrastructure projects. But he said rural areas in particular need more technical help in getting the projects done.
“Rural and smaller communities just don’t have the resources to take complex water projects from an idea through planning and design and into construction,” he said. “So they may have the money but they don’t have the other resources that’s needed to put projects on the ground.”
Gaume’s comments came during the first of three meetings of the Water Policy and Infrastructure Task Force, a 29-person group of academics, state officials, lawmakers and others.
It will present again virtually today at 6:30 p.m. State Engineer Mike Hamman will be the first panelist. Those interested in attending can register here.
New Mexico AG to earn $235,000 salary as new college president – Associated Press
Outgoing New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has signed a three-year contract to serve as the next president at Northern New Mexico College.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Thursday Balderas will be paid $232,500 annually. He currently receives $95,000 a year as attorney general.
“I’m honored that the regents, faculty and staff will collaborate with me as we take on Northern New Mexico College into the future, building on student success and institutional development,” Balderas said in a statement.
The school’s board of regents unanimously approved his appointment last month. Balderas was among four finalists for the position following a months-long national search.
Dr. Bárbara M. Medina had been serving as interim president.
Balderas will be wrapping up his second term as the state’s top prosecutor at the end of the year. He was ineligible to run for re-election because of term limits.
FEMA hosting job fairs to help it run $2.5B claims office for NM fire victims – Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday announced two job fairs next week to find locals able to help the agency administer a multi-billion-dollar program aimed to compensate victims of the biggest fire in New Mexico history.
FEMA is working to set up the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Claims Office, which was created by an act of Congress in late September.
Because the federal government accepted responsibility for starting the 340,000-acre fire in April this year, Congress appropriated $2.5 billion to fully compensate victims for losses they suffered. President Joe Biden has also asked Congress for an additional $2.9 billion.
To spend that money and investigate damage claims, FEMA needs to hire employees for what officials say is a completely separate office within the agency. They are hoping to hire as many New Mexicans as possible, according to Angela Gladwell, the FEMA official who is running the new claims office.
The agency is hiring for a range of jobs, according to a news release, including the role of “ombudsman” for the office. Salaries range from a little more than $55,000 to more than $123,000, according to FEMA.
According to the agency, the “ombudsman” will work with fire victims to help them understand the process and also resolve conflicts, along with being involved in making any necessary changes to the process. It pays up to $123,000 a year.
FEMA is also hiring “customer navigators,” a position that lawmakers have been asking for. They’ll work with fire victims and the claims office to come up with solutions for applicants, according to a job description. That job pays up to $123,000 a year, as well.
Additional positions FEMA wants to fill:
- Claims representative
- Public affairs specialist
- Inventory management specialist
- Supply management specialist
- Mobile communications vehicle operator
- Job descriptions can be found here.
The employees would work at sites in Santa Fe, Mora or Las Vegas, N.M.
Applicants must be U.S. citizens, at least 18 and have a high school diploma or GED. They also must pass a background check that includes fingerprinting and a credit check. Interviews might be conducted on-site or scheduled for later, according to a news release from FEMA.
Protections sought for coyotes in Mexican wolf territory – By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Environmentalists want the U.S. government to list coyotes as endangered in parts of Arizona and New Mexico where the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America is found.
A coalition of groups argue in a petition submitted Thursday to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that small statured Mexican gray wolves are often mistaken for coyotes and that protecting coyotes would in turn cut down on wolf deaths.
Environmentalists say illegal killings are the leading cause of death for the endangered animals.
The petition pointed to cases in which Mexican wolves have been killed by people who said they believed they were killing a coyote. This misidentification invokes a federal policy that effectively protects a person from prosecution because it requires the government to prove that a defendant knew they were killing an endangered species when they pulled the trigger.
“It’s an outrage that merely saying ‘I thought it was a coyote’ serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who shoots one of these highly imperiled animals,” said Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Ranchers argue there are more Mexican wolves roaming the Southwest now than any time since recovery began more than two decades ago, and that rural communities continue to bear the costs of livestock losses due to wolf reintroduction.
Loren Patterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said Thursday that his group learned last week that Mexican wolves were located north of Interstate 40 as well as in the Manzano Mountains near Albuquerque.
As the wolf population expands, more human interaction and incidental wolf deaths should be expected, Patterson said.
“To hamper our recreational and agriculture communities by protecting an unregulated furbearer is unjustified,” he said. “The livestock industry is still not being made whole by wolf depredations and to add the inability to control problem coyote populations would just add to a tense situation between the endangered species and the people that live within the recovery zone.”
He suggested real-time location maps of collared wolves, hunter education and reimbursing the full value of livestock killed by wolves would be better options for addressing the problem.
While the petition acknowledges that it’s unknown how many Mexican gray wolves are killed in cases of real or alleged mistaken identity, the environmental groups argue that publications and posters encouraging hunters to learn the difference haven’t helped.
There are at least 196 Mexican gray wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona, according to the most recent survey. It marked the sixth straight year the population has increased.
Under the Endangered Species Act, federal wildlife officials can make a determination to protect a species that is neither endangered nor threatened when it closely resembles an endangered or threatened species.
A key consideration would be the degree of difficulty wildlife agents and other enforcement personnel would have in distinguishing the species. The petition points to a case in 2013 in which a wildlife specialist shot and killed a wolf, thinking it was a coyote.
Coyotes can be hunted year-round in Arizona and New Mexico with no requirement for a hunting license.
Republican Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte raised her daughters on a ranch in wolf territory and she said she knows firsthand about the challenges facing southwestern New Mexico. She called the coyote proposal absurd, saying environmentalists have been trying to weaponize the Endangered Species Act and that such proposals make it more difficult to find a middle ground.
“What this does is further discredit the value and the intent of what the Endangered Species Act was created to do,” she said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must decide whether to consider the petition.
New Mexico seeks tougher provisions for US nuclear dump – By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
New Mexico officials outlined new conditions Thursday for a proposed permit for the U.S. government to continue the disposal of nuclear waste in the southeast corner of the state, part of a multibillion-dollar federal cleanup program.
As a hedge against becoming the nation’s only permanent dumping ground, New Mexico wants to raise the bar with its proposal by demanding federal officials produce a full accounting of materials still needing to be cleaned up and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP.
The state also is putting Congress on notice that the permit would be revoked if lawmakers expand the type of waste accepted at WIPP. Currently, the repository is licensed to take what is known as transuranic waste, or waste generated by the nation’s nuclear weapons program that is contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium.
There are a few other commercial facilities in the U.S. that accept low-level waste, but none involves hoisting it into an ancient salt formation about a half-mile deep.
The idea is that the salt from which the subterranean landfill is carved will shift and eventually entomb the barrels and special boxes that are stacked within disposal rooms. The containers are packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and other contaminated debris.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and members of the state’s congressional delegation have relayed to top federal officials the concerns of New Mexicans about any plans that would call for opening WIPP to high-level waste such as diluted plutonium.
Top state officials also have criticized the federal government for prioritizing cleanup in other states rather than getting more waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory — the once top-secret birthplace of the atomic bomb — shipped to WIPP.
Prioritizing waste from New Mexico would be another condition in the permit, and state officials also want the federal government to submit annual reports on steps being taken to site another underground repository elsewhere in the U.S.
State Environment Secretary James Kenney told The Associated Press in an interview that the proposed conditions represent more than just a wish list, but rather a framework for holding the government accountable.
“One thing the federal government has taught me greatly in this job is that unless they’re told to do something, they may not do it,” Kenney said, adding that the proposed permit conditions would enable the state to leverage outcomes that are in New Mexico’s best interest.
The Environment Department plans to release the full draft permit Dec. 20, opening a 60-day public comment period that will be followed by a public hearing and negotiations with the U.S. Department of Energy.
The DOE is expected to push back on several conditions, and it could take a year before a final permit is hashed out and approved.
The agency did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
Nuclear watchdogs were pleased with the details shared by the state Thursday, saying those steps, if adopted, would help prevent the state from being steamrolled by the federal government.
Kenney recalled being at a gas station in eastern New Mexico when he learned the DOE reached an agreement with Idaho to prioritize cleanup there and ship most of the waste to WIPP. New Mexico was never consulted, he said.
The proposed permit is aimed at reclaiming the state’s authority and prioritizing public health and environmental protections in ways that haven’t been seen in years, Kenney said.
“When you’re talking about various things coming to WIPP, your first call, before any other state, needs to be to New Mexico,” he said. “All roads lead from WIPP. They don’t lead to WIPP and we will not be put in the position — and I think this permit shows that — that we will be the last one consulted.”
New Mexico State Police release fatal campus shooting video – Associated Press
State Police have released surveillance footage of last month’s fatal shooting on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque that involved a basketball player from a rival school.
Rooftop parking lot video released Tuesday by police showed that three people approached New Mexico State University junior forward Mike Peake, 21, from behind and he was struck and shot before he started firing. The shooting killed Brandon Travis, 19.
New Mexico State University suspended Peake indefinitely from the team in connection with the Nov. 19 shooting, though he has not been charged. He was hospitalized after the shooting with a leg wound that has required several surgeries.
Travis died outside a University of New Mexico dormitory hours before the host Lobos were to play the Aggies. That game was canceled along with the Dec. 3 rematch in Las Cruces.
State Police investigators said Travis conspired with two other UNM students and a 17-year-old girl to lure Peake onto campus.
The video showed the three people coming up to Peake while his back was turned before one of them hit Peake in the legs with a baseball bat.
Peake also was shot in the left leg before the video showed him pulling out a gun and firing several shots at one of the men, according to police who said Travis was struck by four bullets.
The surveillance video also showed Peake hopping on his right leg and meeting up with three teammates in a car. Police said the men placed objects in the trunk of the vehicle before driving off and Peake’s gun appeared to be one of the items.
NMSU officials identified the players as junior forward Issa Muhammad, sophomore forward Marchelus Avery and sophomore guard Anthony Roy. None of them have faced charges tied to the case, but all three were suspended for one game and missed Wednesday night’s 66-65 road loss to Santa Clara.
A Las Cruces brawl at an Oct. 15 football game between the two universities was a precursor to the shooting, police said.
NMSU is hiring an outside investigator to compile a detailed report about the shooting, officials said. The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office is working with State Police on the case.