Newspaper’s lawsuit forced open pardon documents

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For the first time, SFR and New Mexico In Depth can present vignettes of Gov. Susana Martinez’s pardon files — stories about crime, punishment and redemption. If not for a years-long legal fight, the public likely would never have seen the stories.

In 2013, SFR sued the governor for failing to turn over various public records. The most significant of them were the applications people had made to the governor requesting pardons.

Martinez’s office argued executive privilege shielded the pardon files from disclosure. The governor went so far as to hire Paul Kennedy, a well-known Albuquerque lawyer whom Martinez once appointed to the state Supreme Court, to help her shield the records from public view. She has paid Kennedy and his firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for his work on the case, although her administration has refused to say exactly how much, prompting yet another lawsuit from one of the authors of this story.

But Santa Fe State District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ordered Martinez to turn over documents that detailed applicants’ crimes, their accomplishments and pleas for forgiveness.

“The Court’s review of the records produced from the 10 sample files, attached as exhibits to Plaintiff’s Motion, indicates that, apart from the redaction of personal identifying information to which the parties stipulated, those records were neither privileged nor exempt from disclosure,” Singleton wrote in a 2016 order. “They just do not meet the definition of documents that would support an exemption or privilege, and there is nothing about them that makes them in need of particular protection.”

The governor’s office turned over hundreds of pages of documents contained in more than 250 pardon application files. SFR distilled all the information in a spreadsheet, allowing for the most comprehensive analysis yet of Martinez’s record on pardons.

Still, SFR did not obtain all the information it was seeking; included in the packets are votes from the state Parole Board recommending to the governor how she should act on certain pardon applications. The governor’s office redacted the Parole Board findings, making it more difficult to scrutinize the governor’s final decisions on pardon requests.

Martinez can release the Parole Board recommendations if she so chooses.

Singleton’s ruling ordering the release of the pardon files will help shine a light on such records no matter which governor is in power, according to Katherine Murray, who represented SFR in the lawsuit alongside Santa Fe lawyer Daniel Yohalem.

Now any journalist or citizen encountering trouble obtaining pardon files under any gubernatorial administration can point to Singleton’s ruling and say, “‘This happened before,’” Murray says.

This story was reported in partnership with the Santa Fe Reporter.