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MON: Gov settles harassment claim for $150K, + More

Morgan Lee
Associated Press
In this July 29, 2021, file photo New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M. The final price tag for a settlement reached by Grisham and a former campaign spokesman is now $150,000.

New Mexico governor settles harassment claim for $150k — Associated Press

The final price tag for a settlement reached by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and a former campaign spokesman to settle accusations of harassment is now $150,000.

The latest round of payments were disclosed in a mandatory campaign finance report that the Democrat's campaign filed Monday. The twice-annual report on spending and contributions shows the incumbent has raised $2.5 million since April for her reelection bid as several Republicans are vying to take back the office.

GOP state Rep. Rebecca Dow raised more than $440,500 since announcing her candidacy in early July. Her campaign said she has received contributions from more than 1,300 donors.

In the settlement involving Lujan Grisham, former campaign staffer James Hallinan had accused Lujan Grisham of dropping water on his crotch and then grabbing his crotch in the midst of a campaign staff meeting prior to the election — accusations that the governor denies.

Lujan Grisham said earlier this year that she decided to resolve the matter because she wanted to focus her attention on the pandemic. At the time, the governor said there hadn't been any other financial settlements and nondisclosure agreements of a similar nature.

Lujan Grisham's political committee paid an additional $87,500 over the past six months to an attorney for Hallinan, who now runs a public relations and political consulting firm. The political committee reported in an April campaign spending report that it had paid $62,500 as part of the settlement.

Campaign spokeswoman Kendall Witmer said in a statement that the claims were without merit and that the settlement was reached in 2020 "due to the expense of litigating business disputes and to prevent any distraction during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic."

The settlement has drawn criticism from Republicans and is being used as campaign fodder by rivals in the gubernatorial race. Republicans on Monday accused the governor of misleading New Mexicans by "'disguising"' the settlement payments on the campaign finance reports as legal expenses, saying voters deserve a governor who insists on transparency.

The governor also has been criticized for her handling of the pandemic. Lujan Grisham's campaign defended her record and also pointed to efforts to diversify the state's economy and spend more on education.

Witmer said the campaign isn't taking anything for granted and that it's in the strongest possible position heading in to 2022.

New Mexico professor against vax, mask mandates fired Associated Press

A New Mexico State University professor who publicly opposed campus vaccine and mask mandates will no longer be teaching there.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports David Clements, a business college professor, posted on his social media account on the Telegram platform that he had been "terminated."

The university confirmed Monday that Clements was "no longer employed by NMSU."

The professor, who was on track for tenure, had been suspended since August over public declarations that he would not abide by any COVID-19 vaccine or mask mandate. He also said the would urge others to do the same.

During a meeting among administrators last week, Provost Carol Parker recommended that Clements be fired for endangering the public's safety and disrupting a learning environment. Parker said his refusal was essentially a breach of contract.

Clements argued masking and vaccine policies were illegal. He also disputed scientific opinion on the benefits of the vaccine and wearing masks.

The former New Mexico deputy district attorney's advocacy had drawn complaints from students.

While suspended, Clements also stirred controversy traveling to advocate for audits of the 2020 presidential election.

An online fundraiser for him has raised more than $280,000 so far.

Supply chain problems threaten utility's power supplies - By Kevin Robinson-Avila Associated Press

When Public Service Company of New Mexico abandons the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in June, the utility won't have enough solar replacement power to pick up the slack because of supply chain issues caused by the global pandemic

Three of the four solar projects meant to replace the coal plant won't be fully operating until well after San Juan's closure, creating potential power supply issues when consumer demand peaks in summer 2022, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

PNM is seeking agreements with other regional utilities for temporary backup power for when homes and businesses ramp up their cooling systems during summer. But with unprecedented heat waves stressing power grids throughout the West, the utility is struggling to secure needed San Juan replacement power.

Utility executives are "very concerned" about it, although the company does expect to lock in deals with power suppliers in time to meet consumer demand next summer, said Vice President for Generation Tom Fallgren.

"Do I lose sleep over it? Yes," Fallgren recently told the state Public Regulation Commission. "Do I think we'll solve it? Yes."

The problems began in May, when developers of one of four solar projects meant to replace coal generation next year told PNM it would not be able to bring its planned "Rockmont" solar plant online in time for San Juan's closure. The 130-megawatt Rockmont project — with 100 MW of solar generation and 30 MW of backup battery storage — accounts for about 14% of the total 950 MW of solar panels and batteries that PNM has contracted to replace San Juan.

The other sources include the 450-MW "Arroyo" solar and battery system in McKinley County, a 300-MW "San Juan" solar and battery project and a 70-MW "Jicarilla" solar and battery facility in Rio Arriba County.

Rockmont developers are behind because they never fully resolved right-of-way issues with land owners before completing their contract with PNM. That interrupted agreed-on construction timelines, pushing the developers into default on the contract, Fallgren told the Journal.

PNM is now working with other companies that have needed land rights in place to take over the Rockmont project.

But over the summer, the Arroyo and San Juan project developers also told PNM that supply chain issues caused by the pandemic have affected their construction plans, delaying completion dates for those projects as well. They could go partly online between June and December of next year, but they won't be fully operational until spring 2023, at the earliest.

The central problem is importing solar panels from Asia. The pandemic significantly slowed factory production, and now maritime shipping is backed up at West Coast ports.

"The shipping delays have had a huge impact, not only for solar panels, but for many other products," Fallgren said. "We do expect all the solar resources to come online in 2023, but we're facing significant issues for next summer."

Without temporary replacement power — either by purchasing electricity on wholesale markets or through short-term, bilateral supply agreements with other utilities — PNM's reserve margin of power from its own generating systems would fall to just 5% next summer. That compares with a 13% margin it normally maintains.

Complicating the situation, recent PNM requests for proposals to purchase wholesale resources in preparation for summer 2022 turned up almost no responses. That's because all Western states are struggling to lock in enough electricity for their own grids, given the unprecedented heat waves in recent years brought on by climate change.

"I think that just reflects how tight markets are becoming in the West," Ron Darnell, PNM senior vice president for public policy, told the PRC in a recent presentation. "This is a challenging situation."

Given the changing weather patterns, PNM and the PRC need to raise reserve margins, Fallgren said.

"In light of extreme weather conditions seen among our neighbors, we should look at expanding (reserve margins) up to 18% to 20%," Fallgren told commissioners.

That would mean contracting for more generating resources in the near future, something the utility is now evaluating. But for now, it's primarily focused on resolving the short-term supply issues for next summer.

The company is in advanced negotiations on bilateral supply contracts with other utilities. It may also temporarily lease some diesel generators and battery storage systems.

Some PRC commissioners have suggested delaying the San Juan closure until the end of next summer, but that would require complex negotiations with other plant co-owners, as well as a new coal-supply contract to run the plant.

"We don't see extending San Juan operations as a viable option," Fallgren said.

The PRC is closely monitoring the situation and will request regular updates from PNM, commission Chair Stephen Fischmann said.

"PNM is working full blast on a wide variety of ways to fill the power gap," Fischmann said. "We'll check in monthly to see how it's going to get this resolved with minimal impact on consumers."

Once the summer 2022 power issues are resolved, the PRC must continue working with PNM and other local utilities on long-term grid reliability and reserve margins, given the limited capacity now to depend on regional wholesale markets to fill in gaps as states work to transition their grids from fossil fuels to renewable resources.

"That issue is getting a lot of regulatory attention now on a regional basis to address resource adequacy and having enough generation to meet demand," Fischmann said. "That might entail hanging on a little longer to generating plants that are scheduled for shutdown to make sure we don't put ourselves in a bind."

Bernalillo County Headquarters Closed After Shots Fired Into Lobby - KUNM News

Bernalillo County says its Alvarado Square offices in downtown Albuquerque will be closed Monday after gunshots were fired into the building early this morning. 

In a statement, the county says bullets were shot into the atrium lobby area of the county’s headquarters on Silver Ave. between 4th and 5th streets. It says no one was injured and characterized the shooting as vandalism. 

Still, the county says that for safety, no one is allowed in the building and that building employees are being asked to work remotely for the day. All other county offices will remain open. 

No other details were immediately released.

Annual review of campaign finances resumes in New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

After a four-year hiatus, state election regulators have resumed spot-checks on campaign finance disclosures by politicians, election candidates and political committees, with 10 accounts referred to New Mexico's fledgling State Ethics Commission and state prosecutors for possible enforcement action.

The random sampling of campaign finance disclosures from the 2020 general election cycle taps into a newly deployed electronic campaign finance reporting system at the secretary of state's office that reconciles an intricate web of campaign contributions, transfers and expenditures. 

State law requires an annual sampling of 10% of accounts, triggering a review of roughly 110 accounts. Results were published Friday. Regulators attributed the hiatus in part to scarce resources.

Alleged violations included groups receiving contributions from unidentified sources and failing to register as political committees. 

In addition to the 10 referrals, six committees or candidates are currently working to resolve discrepancies with the secretary of state's office. The agency focuses on education and voluntary compliance.

State Elections Director Mandy Vigil, who oversaw the campaign finance review, says politicians and committee treasurers have new opportunities and tools at their disposal to quickly clarify and reconcile possible violations of the state Campaign Reporting Act. An internet dashboard alerts possible violations in real time as reports are filled out online.

The Campaign Reporting Act includes political contribution limits, currently set at $5,200 for what candidates or committees can accept. Political committees can make contributions of up to $5,200.

The regulatory review of 2020 campaign finance records extends to political committees that engage in independent expenditures — a consequence of 2019 legislation that called for financial disclosures by some so-called dark money groups that operate on the periphery of coordinated political campaigning.

Among them, Enchantment PAC resolved an initial concern about incomplete reporting of independent expenditures. The committee is affiliated with the progressive advocacy group OLÉ. 

Lingering campaign accounts linked to deceased and disgraced politicians also were flagged for discrepancies and referred for possible enforcement.

Fines for late-filed campaign finance disclosures are stacking up against former state Sen. Phil Griego and his campaign account that still holds a balance of more than $40,000. Griego completed a 15-month prison stay in 2019 linked to convictions for fraud, bribery and ethical violations after using his position as a state senator to profit from the sale of a state-owned building.

A political account for former Democratic state Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, who died in 2017, has been flagged for enforcement on discrepancies about payments. 

The account, managed by a relative, disbursed $2,500 in May to the political campaign of Santa Fe mayoral candidate Joane Vigil Coppler and reported a balance of roughly $15,200. It no longer accepts contributions.

Vigil Coppler is challenging incumbent Mayor Alan Webber in a three-way race that concludes Nov. 2.

Gallup physicians, nurses call for action at town hall - By Richard Reyes Gallup Independent

When local educator Lindsey Mingus' water broke in the middle of the night while she was pregnant with her second child, she drove herself to Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital because her husband had to stay home to care for their son, who was 3 years old at the time.

Labor and delivery nurse Beatrice Nuñez had been there to deliver Mingus' firstborn, Isaac. She was there again this time.

"Having that same labor and delivery nurse be part of both of my children's entrance into this world was comforting, knowing that she had been with me both times," Mingus recounted during an Oct. 2 town hall at a church in Gallup.

Mingus, who has lived in Gallup with her husband for nine years and who plans to stay in the community, said Nuñez and a locum doctor caught her baby boy, Benjamin, who was predicted to be a girl.

At birth, Benjamin was diagnosed with down syndrome. He was transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque while Mingus stayed at Rehoboth McKinley by herself.

But she wasn't entirely alone.

Mingus said Nuñez stayed with her through the nurses' shift change, the Gallup Independent reported. On-duty labor and delivery nurse Sara Pikaart and other nurses also stayed with her and checked on her throughout the night until her husband could arrive.

One nurse made her a sandwich to eat at 2 a.m. while she was pumping milk that she could later take to Benjamin at the UNM Hospital Newborn Intensive Care Unit.

"That meant so much to me," she said.

Mingus' emotional testimony came one week after the closure of the labor and delivery unit at Rehoboth McKinley due to a shortage of nurses after Nuñez, Pikaart and others resigned due to safety concerns and a lack of support from the hospital administration.

"The closing of the labor and delivery unit is devastating to this community because those women and nurses and care providers take care of not only the moms, the infants, but their families," Mingus said. "And my heart breaks for this community and the expecting moms and families who now are scrambling to find their care. Going to Albuquerque isn't always an option for women in this area. I know that that's not something I am able to do, and we need to reinstate the L and D unit here for our families and our community."


A call to action

The town hall also came on the heels of the physicians' unionization vote confirmation at Rehoboth McKinley. Of 25 eligible physicians and advanced practice providers, 23 cast their ballots and a majority voted in favor of moving forward with a partnership with the Union of American Physicians and Dentists.

The recent meeting was organized by UAPD representatives as well as local organizing committee members. Physicians, nurses and community members shared testimonials about problems at Rehoboth McKinley as well as potential solutions.

Rachel Flores, organizing director for the UAPD, called on those in attendance to literally stand behind the physicians and nurses present in a show of support.

"Are you on board?" Flores asked. "Are you ready to take your hospital back?"

Flores, who is based in Sacramento, also issued a call to action to community members, urging them to contact members of the Gallup City Council, McKinley County Board of Commissioners and Rehoboth McKinley Board of Trustees to voice their concerns.


Physician administrators

Dr. Caleb Lauber, a former Rehoboth McKinley physician who was terminated in July, led the panel discussion.

Lauber, who is from Houck, Arizona, was the only Navajo physician and only Navajo-speaking physician at the hospital.

Lauber, who holds a master's degree in business administration, became chief of staff in January and was the physicians' representative on the Board of Trustees. Lauber said he brought questions and concerns to the board, and he had also applied to become CEO. He believes he was seen as a threat to the organization and was unfairly fired.

"The main thing I want you guys to know, and to really feel this, is this is your hospital," he told the audience. "The hospital building is run and managed by the county through your tax dollars. You pay for this and this is our hospital, so we can continue to let it be the hospital that it is with the oversight in disarray. I'm one who doesn't want to stand for that."

Gallup resident Larry Smith asked what it would take to fix the problems at the hospital. He noted that CEO after CEO has come in, yet the same issues keep recurring. He noted that he worked briefly at the hospital after he retired from his own business.

"I watched money go out the windows like you could not believe — hundred dollar bills, thousand dollar bills going out the window, wasted," he said. "When I worked there, there was problems with the building itself not being repaired."

Lauber said it was important to look at the past and the fact that businessmen have been overseeing the hospital. He believes it's time for local physicians to become administrators. He named Dr. Valory Wangler, Dr. Lawrence Andrade and Dr. Chris Hoover as examples of potential leaders.

"Individuals that are going to do the best jobs are individuals that are residing in the community that have a desire to do a good job for the community because this is their home," Lauber said. "We're on a downward trail right now and we really need to rectify this issue. And in my opinion, I think we need to extricate the administration that's currently present at RMCH."


More transparency, better oversight

Dr. Connie Liu, a physician at Gallup Indian Medical Center, stressed more transparency is needed from the Board of Trustees and executive leadership.

"And more expectation to answer to the community and not the other way around," she said.

Liu said Rehoboth McKinley physicians put together a list of requests for local leaders: greater transparency; local consideration of local issues and local focus; and better oversight by the board of the executive leadership and how the hospital is run.

Hoover, Liu's husband and a urologist at Rehoboth McKinley, stressed that he is not privy to board meeting agendas and minutes. Instead, he has to rely on the current chief of staff as his representative on the board, but he doesn't trust that person.

"We have to hold the board accountable for our hospital," Hoover said. "How can we do that without transparency?"

Betsy Meester, a former Rehoboth McKinley employee, said she resigned because she felt like a fraud working for the hospital. She noted that the problems at the hospital aren't just in the Women's Health Unit.

Hoover agreed, pointing out that medical assistants and other hospital staff were conspicuously absent at the meeting because the administration has created a culture of fear of speaking out by telling employees that they are replaceable.

"We need a voice, we need to restore some balance to the power dynamic that's at the hospital right now, so that we can ask for things that we think are reasonable, that we think are safe, that we think our patients, who are us, need and want," he said.

Guard unit to support resettlement operations for Afghans - Associated Press

A New Mexico Army National Guard unit is deploying within the United States to support resettlement operations for Afghan refugees. 

A departure ceremony was held Friday for the Belen-based 919th Military Police Company, the guard said in a statement that didn't specify where the unit's soldiers would deploy.

Afghans resettling to the United States are being housed temporarily at eight military bases while obtaining special immigrant visas. 

The bases include Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico and the Army's Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

U,S. military officials have said there have been scattered reports of assaults, robbery and theft at some of the bases, including an assault on a female service member by several men at Fort Bliss.

According to the guard, the 919th's soldiers "will conduct security operations and assist units that are already providing transportation, temporary housing, culturally appropriate food, medical screening, religious accommodations, and general support for over 50,000 Afghan guests."

The Afghans include former interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan during the past two decades.

The guard called the deployment "an opportunity for the 919th to perform their duties in a critical real-world environment."

New Mexico State Police ID 2 Arizonans killed in a car crash - Associated Press

Two Arizona residents who died in a vehicle crash on the Navajo reservation have been identified, according to New Mexico State Police.

They said 50-year-old Michael McCraren of Tucson and 28-year-old Hannah Cornelson of Surprise were killed in the Oct. 5 head-on collision.

Police said an unidentified 27-year-old man from Surprise was driving a sports car on Navajo Route 5 when the vehicle drifted into oncoming traffic for an unknown reason.

The car crashed into an SUV driven by McCraren, who was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.

A 48-year-old Tucson woman riding in McCraren's vehicle was injured and flown to an Albuquerque hospital.

Police said Cornelson was the passenger in the sports car and later died from her injuries in a Farmington hospital. The driver also was injured.

They said alcohol doesn't appear to be a contributing factor in the crash, which remains under investigation. 

Police: Suspect arrested in Gallup in Albuquerque shooting - Associated Press

A man charged with fatally shooting an Albuquerque man after first wounding the man's service dog has been arrested in Gallup, Albuquerque police said Saturday.

Gallup police aided by state police arrested Xavier Marquez, 22, on Friday on a homicide warrant in the Sept. 22 shooting of Shawn Lynch, 34, police said.

According to police, Marquez was sitting in a vehicle in front of his house when Lynch walked by with his dog.

Police said there was an encounter that involved an exchange of shouts and resulted in the shooting of Lynch's dog and then Lynch.

Marquez led the scene, police said.

Lynch died Sept. 27.

His dog survived after veterinarians removed a bullet fragment from its leg, according to city animal control officials.

Online court records don't list an attorney for Marquez who might comment on his behalf.

Navajo Nation: No COVID-19 deaths for 7th time in 10 days - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported 32 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths.

It marked the seventh time in 10 days that the tribe has reported no deaths.

The latest numbers released Saturday pushed the tribe's totals to 34,392 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll stayed at 1,454.

Navajo officials still are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez has urged tribal members have trouble dealing with the stress of the pandemic to seek professional help.

All Navajo Nation executive branch employees had to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.