With audit release, Balderas ends 19 months of secrecy

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Hector Balderas

Hector Balderas

New Attorney General Hector Balderas reversed a decision by his predecessor that had been upheld by two judges when he released the remainder of a 2013 audit of 15 health organizations on Thursday.

Former Attorney General Gary King and the state’s Human Services Department (HSD) fought for a year and a half to keep most of the audit secret. They argued that releasing portions related to organizations under investigation for potential Medicaid fraud could compromise those probes.

During that time Balderas also had the audit but kept it secret. As state auditor – a job he held before becoming attorney general on Jan. 1 – Balderas agreed to a court order requiring him to keep the audit secret in order to get King’s office and HSD to give him a copy so his office could scrutinize the situation.

Less than a month after becoming attorney general and having the authority to release the audit, Balderas reversed 19 months of secrecy.

“It’s my opinion today that this process into the behavioral health investigation has taken too long and citizens deserve better,” Balderas said Thursday in explaining why he released the audit.

The document Balderas released has some redactions, mostly of names. But it makes public hundreds of pages of information HSD cited when it froze Medicaid funding to 15 New Mexico health organizations in June 2013. That action sparked the criminal investigations and a chaotic transition to new health organizations that disrupted services for many New Mexicans being treated for issues including suicide attempts, drug addiction and depression.

Balderas is also asking the state Legislature for an extra $1 million, which he says would allow him to complete the investigations into potential Medicaid fraud in a few months. King had said a lack of funding meant the probes would take the Attorney General’s Office several years.

New Mexico In Depth and the Las Cruces Sun-News filed a lawsuit seeking release of the audit in 2013. The N.M. Foundation for Open Government filed a similar lawsuit. Judges in both cases sided with King, whose office claimed release of the audit could compromise its investigations.

During a court hearing in Las Cruces, an AG official testified that releasing even a redacted version would harm the criminal probes. Balderas apparently disagreed.

Sun-News managing editor Sylvia Ulloa said the newspaper would look closely at the redactions but was “pleased that Balderas is taking transparency seriously.”

The Sun-News and NMID have asked the N.M. Court of Appeals to overturn a district court judge’s ruling letting HSD and the AG keep the audit secret. C.J. McElhinney, the attorney representing the news organizations, said they would review the redactions before deciding whether to continue their appeal.

McElhinney said the redactions appear “targeted to provide the greatest possible information to the public, yet the interest of protecting the identities of individual witnesses has been upheld.” He said the public now has the information to “come to its own conclusion regarding the validity of the actions of the politicians responsible for changing public policy as a result of this audit.”

“The only question in my mind is why these targeted redactions could not have been made by the previous administration or ordered by the judicial branch through the lawsuits filed to force the release of the audit,” he said.

Gov. Susana Martinez, who oversees HSD, didn’t take a stance on whether Balderas should release the audit.

“It’s his case. He gets to do what he wants to do with it,” Martinez said Monday, before Balderas released the audit.

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