Sen. Bill Soules now says he needs a legal expert’s advice before he can move forward on a matter that’s angered fellow legislators, state employees and members of tribes and pueblos.
The issue for Soules is whether legislators who supervise a state administrator, Rachel Gudgel, can see a special investigator’s findings on her management record and her use of derogatory comments about Native Americans.
Gudgel makes $129,000 a year as director of the Legislative Education Study Committee. Her supervisors are 10 state legislators, the committee’s voting members.
Soules, who chairs the panel, says he’s unsure whether it’s proper for legislators to hear from Thomas Hnasko, the contract attorney who investigated Gudgel, or even if they can see Hnasko’s report on her conduct.
“I think we need clarification if it’s appropriate based on personnel law,” Soules, D-Las Cruces, said in an interview.
Soules questions whether duly elected legislators responsible for supervising Gudgel can have the results of an investigation on her job performance.
By Soules’ way of stonewalling, the bosses need an outsider’s permission to learn exactly what Gudgel said and did.
Soules’ approach is a slap at many other lawmakers. Leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives hired Hnasko at $260 an hour to investigate Gudgel under the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy.
Still, Soules says he has asked the director of the Legislative Council Service to recommend an attorney versed in personnel matters to advise Soules on whether legislators should see the investigator’s report on Gudgel. It’s a fine system for fans of cronyism and bureaucracy.
Another of Gudgel’s supervisors, Rep. Christine Trujillo, had a sharp response for Soules.
“I think he’s full of baloney,” Trujillo said.
A Democrat from Albuquerque, Trujillo pressed last year for the committee that supervises Gudgel to hold an executive session regarding her conduct. Soules and several other legislators objected, and the meeting was never held. Soules is a longtime supporter of Gudgel.
Staff members of the Legislative Education Study Committee have complained about Gudgel creating a hostile and unproductive work environment.
They also said Gudgel often made derogatory comments about Native Americans.
I’ve interviewed several people who provided details on Gudgel’s statements. They gave the following account of what many considered the worst episode.
“While the LESC was holding meetings on the Jicarilla Apache reservation, Ms. Gudgel made the following comment regarding the Native American Charter Academy to the staff: ‘It’s not like making beaded sandals is going to improve student outcomes.’ Ms. Gudgel later defended the statement, and she continued to use derogatory phrases despite being repeatedly asked by staff to refrain.”
Gudgel has not responded to requests for comment.
Many people across the state say Soules and Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who’s also supportive of Gudgel, are using a double standard to protect Gudgel.
“Had these comments been directed at any other minority or protected group, our legislative body would have immediately called out such comments and removed Gudgel from her position,” said Isaac Dakota Casados, chairman of the Native American Democratic Caucus.
Casados and other tribal leaders have called for legislators to fire Gudgel.
Trujillo understands their viewpoint.
“I think she’s a liability now,” Trujillo said of Gudgel.
Soules last week called for a belated executive session of the legislative committee, but he scheduled the meeting without Hnasko, the key investigator. Soules told fellow committee members Hnasko was on vacation. Soules planned for the committee to hear from “a leadership coach” the state hired to help Gudgel. Soules’ push for a meeting without Hnasko failed on a 5-5 vote.
If Soules is unsure whether legislators can hear from the investigator, why would the leadership coach’s account of the same personnel matter be fair game?
“Rachel agreed to it,” Soules said.
What a system. The committee chairman believes he needs permission from Gudgel before her bosses can review the results of an investigation paid for by the public.
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, wants Soules to make the entire record of the investigation of Gudgel available to the 10 voting members of the committee.
Met with resistance, Lente told me he is sending a letter to House Speaker Brian Egolf and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth asking them to step in and provide the committee with all evidence it needs to evaluate Gudgel.
“If they cannot produce, then we have a larger issue at hand,” Lente said. “There’s been a lot of secrecy around this report. It has to end.”
Casados, whose Native American Democratic Caucus has 72,000 registered voters in the state, sees it the same way.
“We had a number of legislators who were not informed of this egregious behavior for quite sometime,” he said.
Soules and Stewart like to say they stand for accountability in government.
Not this time. They face an insurgence from the other five Democrats on the committee. All of them say the investigation of Gudgel is being covered up.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at [email protected] or 505-986-3080.