Thursday, October 13, 2005

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: WHEN WE GET BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 13, 2004

Nobody is doubting former Supreme Court Justice Paul Kennedy’s qualifications to serve as special counsel to the legislative panel considering the possible impeachment of indicted state Treasurer Robert Vigil.

But Bob Johnson, director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said Kennedy is dead wrong about the state Open Meetings Act.

Earlier this week the House impeachment subcommittee held one session in closed-door executive session — which Johnson said was a violation of the act.

Johnson pointed out that the only situation that allows an executive session is to discuss pending or threatened litigation.

Kennedy told reporters that the pending litigation involved was the federal criminal case against Vigil — which grew even more serious Wednesday when a grand jury brought 19 new extortion counts against him.

When Kennedy’s answer was printed, Johnson called me to explain that the exact wording of that part of the act is, “Meetings subject to the attorney-client privilege pertaining to threatened or pending litigation in which the public body is or may become a participant.”

“Unless the Legislature is going to become part of the criminal case, this is a violation of the Open Meetings Act,” Johnson said.

House Majority Leader Kenny Martinez, D-Grants, a member of the panel, told me Wednesday that any executive sessions will be kept to the minimum.

Another member, Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces told me that not all the panel members support having closed-door meetings.

Anonymous calls: Sinister new implications related to secret testimony in the impeachment proceedings arose last week when I received a call from a guy who didn’t want to give his name but wanted to share some gossip, or “word on the street” about the Vigil case.

I’m not sure which street this came from, but the word there, according to the caller, is that Vigil intends to bring up dirt on lawmakers during any impeachment hearings.

Perhaps this rumor was sparked by the fact that Vigil’s lawyer subpoenaed campaign finance reports from several politicians, including legislators.

But the thought crossed my mind: Could this be the reason for taking Vigil’s deposition outside the view of the public?

Certainly there’s no evidence that this is the reason for all the talk about making all the evidence available to House members — but nobody else.

I’d like to believe Kennedy and panel members when they say their only concerns are tainting potential witnesses and potential jurors in the criminal case.

But if these sessions are held behind closed doors and the testimony kept from reporters and interested public members, that suspicion will be out there.

Philadelphia story: During the impeachment panel’s first meeting last week, Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, spoke about court documents implicating Vigil in an alleged kickback scheme. “You don’t have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to understand this,” Larranaga said.

The next day, the subcommittee hired Kennedy, who happens to have been born in Philadelphia. A sheepish Larranaga told me that he was just using a figure of speech.

(For new developments in the Treasurer scandal CLICK HERE and HERE.)

One of our 50 (state capitols) is missing: It was surprising to read an article in The Salt Lake City Tribune about Gov. Bill Richardson and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s joint announcement of their proposed early Western-state presidential primary.

“On Tuesday, Utah's Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, chairmen from both major parties and the governor and several staffers flew to Albuquerque for a news conference,” the story said.

I was there. But I could have sworn I was in Santa Fe.

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