Improperly Sealed: Lawyers, not judges, selecting which NM fed court documents stay secret

Prosecutors and defense lawyers have shielded records from public view without a judge’s order in New Mexico’s federal courts, an apparent violation of the U.S. District Court of New Mexico’s own rules, New Mexico In Depth has learned. Judges, not lawyers, are supposed to decide which documents are made available to the public and which should remain secret through an established protocol based in part on decades of case law: Attorneys must submit a written request asking a judge to seal records and a judge must consent before records are sealed. Despite this well-known standard, in numerous instances spread among three criminal cases, the New Mexico offices of the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Public Defender have decided unilaterally to make documents secret without a judge’s order, according to a review of federal court records by NMID. It is not clear how many of the thousands of federal court records each year have been sealed this way, but one federal public defender says the practice has gone on for years. “There has been a long-standing practice in the District of New Mexico for parties to elect to file a document under seal, without prior approval of the district court,” attorney John Robbenhaar wrote in an emailed response to questions from NMID.

Newspaper’s lawsuit forced open pardon documents

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.

‘Nothing ever dies’ at the Roundhouse, except maybe transparency

Gov. Susana Martinez wants each state lawmaker to disclose how much he or she spends on projects around the state. Making their emails public would be nice, too. However, the governor isn’t keen on sharing information about legal settlements the state negotiates. As for state lawmakers, they aren’t rushing to support calls from Martinez or some of their colleagues to shine more light on how the Legislature works. Legislation that would help New Mexicans better understand New Mexico state government is going nowhere fast in the legislative session that ends Thursday, a review by New Mexico In Depth has found.

Lobbyist transparency takes a nosedive

In our society, money buys things. That includes at places like the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, where the textbook ideal is an informed citizenry empowered to ask elected officials educated questions about how decisions are made but where the reality often is more muddy.

What money buys in Santa Fe is a pressing question these days in New Mexico, where in the past three years, a former secretary of state has pleaded guilty to embezzlement and a former state senator has been convicted of bribery.

Compliance with ABQ lobbying rules falls way short

One way to cut through the din of constant political noise during an election is to look at the money flowing through the political system. Laws that require campaign and lobbying reports are meant to help the public learn about groups or people attempting to influence election outcomes through donations, or official decisions by spending money on elected officials once they’re in office. Those laws are only worthwhile, though, when they are followed. Take, for example, Albuquerque’s lobbying ordinance. It looks good on paper.

FOG class helps you request (or provide) public info like a pro

Gaining access to public information can often be a contentious process for journalists or other members of the public, even when government employees charged with providing access have the best intentions. A daylong class next week offered by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (NM FOG) aims to help those seeking and providing public information better understand laws and recent court opinions concerning access to public information. And for attorneys, the class provides required continuing legal education credits. “The continuing legal education class the foundation offers is a great resource for records custodians and attorneys who have an obligation under the law to provide public information,” said NM FOG Executive Director Peter St. Cyr.

Sandra Fish wins FOG Dixon Award

We’re so proud of the work our friend and former colleague Sandra Fish did for New Mexico In Depth, including the Openness Project, a special website at opennessproject.com that made it easier for New Mexico voters to follow the money in elections. She was honored for that work by another great organization that works for government transparency here, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

Follow 2017 legislative session via NMID’s Ethics Tracker

Entering the third week of New Mexico’s 2017 legislative session, several ethics and campaign finance reform bills have cleared their first committee hearings. In the interest of reporting on these subjects in a comprehensive way, we’ve decided to share our internal “ethics tracker” publicly. Ethics and campaign finance are issue areas New Mexico In Depth has reported on for years. This year, two bills that would bring significant change to New Mexico seem to have more traction than in years past:

     Creation of an independent ethics commission, or similar entity.      Passage of an omnibus campaign finance reform bill.