Six months ago, SFR reported on allegations that some New Mexico Public Education Department officials had improper educator's licenses.
Since then, PED has maintained that there's never been a licensing problem. But prominent officials are raising questions about whether PED adequately dealt with employees' concerns and urging better oversight in one of the state's largest departments.
Last summer, former El Camino Real Charter School Principal Pamela Engstrom found discrepancies in the licenses of several PED officials [news, Oct. 19, 2011: "License Deregulation"]. Engstrom obtained the licenses via a public-records request after persistent rumors that several PED officials were using faulty teacher's licenses.
By then, the rumors were already close to a year old. In the fall of 2010, then-Educator Quality Division Assistant Secretary Mary Rose C de Baca voiced a complaint after hearing similar rumors.
"I was out in one of the school districts," she tells SFR. "Someone made a comment to me that people who weren't qualified were getting licenses."
C de Baca says she can't remember who told her, nor can she remember the two names she reported to her superiors, Educator Ethics Program Manager Lonnie Hudson and Professional Licensure Bureau Director Phil Baca.
Shortly after C de Baca made the complaint, she retired from PED—but on Oct. 5, 2010, then-PED Secretary Susanna Murphy met with Hudson about C de Baca's concerns, according to records obtained by SFR. A week later, Murphy ordered then-Human Resources Director Stephen Fresquez to conduct an investigation.
Investigators interviewed a handful of PED officials and wrapped up the process by December 2010, concluding that no wrongdoing had occurred and that the licenses were properly obtained through alternative requirements. (In documents detailing the investigation, PED redacted the names of the employees investigated, citing a "matters of opinion" clause in the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.)
But one prominent PED official continued to raise questions. In January 2011, then-Inspector General Sheridan Bamman voiced concerns about PED licensing with new Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera. In an email dated Jan. 10, 2011, Bamman refers to an investigation by the human resources director and someone in the office of general counsel.
"This 'investigation' was conducted in a manner and space of time (in the last days of Dr. Murphy's tenure) that gives the impression of a 'cover up,'" Bamman wrote to Skandera. "The appearance is that the [Office of Investigator General] was intentionally excluded from conducting a professional investigation."
Over the next four months, according to records obtained by SFR, Bamman and Skandera exchanged several emails and appear to have had at least one in-person meeting.
On Feb. 2, 2011, Skandera wrote that she had recently sought advice to find the appropriate person to look into the situation.
"Can you now inform the OIG as to which entity or person will conduct the investigation and when it will be authorized?" Bamman replied on the same day. The final email between the two, dated May 20, 2011, suggests that Skandera decided not to proceed with an external investigation. Bamman mentions a letter Skandera sent her on May 16, which was not included in PED's response to SFR's records request.
"In the past you represented to me that the Governor's Office would appoint an external auditor," Bamman wrote Skandera on May 20. "Apparently this is no longer your position."
The governor's office didn't return SFR's emails and phone calls about the issue.
In her email, Bamman added that she could "present numerous current and former government officials and others who can testify" to the allegations.
Bamman, who declined to comment for this story, was laid off from PED approximately a month later, during downsizing that affected 33 department workers. She was later rehired as a financial coordinator, according to the state's sunshine portal. PED spokesman Larry Behrens says he can't comment on personnel issues but adds that PED restructured many positions after a 25 percent budget cut last year.
It's unclear what happened after Bamman and Skandera's last exchange. Behrens tells SFR in an email that Skandera requested a second investigation, which was eventually conducted by an outside party that recommended no action by PED. Behrens didn't name the outside party or the date of investigation before press time.
But at the state auditor's office, a file on three PED employees' potentially improper educator licenses remains open. State Auditor Hector Balderas says that, since his office received a complaint in May 2011, he's reached out to PED multiple times. In September 2011, Balderas' office sent a letter to PED asking for any reports or correspondences resulting from PED actions on the issue.
"We have not received a formal response or a report," Balderas writes in an email to SFR. "My staff has made follow-up requests for additional information from PED, and I remain concerned as we await a detailed response."
Even public records provided to the media afford only an incomplete picture. When SFR requested records of PED's internal investigation, the department also withheld a five-page, undated investigation of two PED employees, saying IPRA prohibits public agencies from releasing documents "containing matters of opinion."
New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Gwyneth Doland says the exemption PED cited was intended to apply to things like annual performance evaluations and letters of recommendation, not investigations of wrongdoing.
"A police-work investigation is not a police officer's opinion of what happened," Doland tells SFR. "A reasonable person would not expect an internal investigation to be a matter of opinion."
Public Education Commissioner Jeff Carr, D-Colfax, says he has a solution to PED's transparency issues. He's currently authoring an amendment that would reinstate authority the PEC, a group of elected officials who serve as a checkpoint for PED, lost when former Gov. Bill Richardson put public education on the cabinet level. Carr says the weight of the governor's office, combined with the oversight of the governor-appointed education secretary position, makes the agency quite powerful on its own.
“PED is able to run amok without too much oversight,” Carr tells SFR.
View the emails between Sheridan Bamman and Hanna Skandera and the redacted December 2010 internal PED investigation below: