Silence Is Deafening

Martinez administration dodges interview requests with an army of spokespeople who do not speak

There are no shortages of warm and fuzzy profiles, photo opportunities and national press stories about New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, but access to the governor and her top cabinet-level officials is nearly impossible for local journalists who have been deemed unfriendly.

With a team of communication directors and public information officers who collectively earn more than $1 million annually, getting information from the Martinez' administration shouldn't be a problem, but for many reporters, such access is limited or nonexistent.

In fact, Martinez holds few open-ended news conferences, keeping tightlipped about any topic not on the agenda for the moment. Emails, phone calls and text messages to the public information officers are often ignored. Even program managers more often than not refuse to go on the record or discuss policy plans and objectives. Many claim they've been instructed not to talk to the press.

Not all inquiries are ignored. SFR asked Christopher Sanchez, Martinez' $80,799-a-year communications director, if there is a policy to block certain reporters or news organizations' access to state agencies or the governor herself. His one-word reply: "No."

Yet recent practices leave a big void in the information available to the public.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. On a frigid New Year's morning in 2011, shortly after being sworn into office, Martinez pledged, "Transparency and accountability will be core values of my administration," adding, "we aren't going to hide anything from you in the hope of escaping your fair judgment of our performance."

Six years later, the day-to-day reality of covering the Martinez administration, however, suggests something altogether different.

Lorene Mills, who as producer and host of Report from Santa Fe, which airs on PBS stations around New Mexico, and who has interviewed every governor since Bruce King, has yet to interview Martinez, thanks to stonewalling from her staff.

"It's not a position of intelligence or sophistication," Mills says. "They don't trust the democratic process. They want to control everything. It's very immature."

Mills recalls running into Keith Gardner, the governor's chief of staff, at Home Depot and asking him to schedule an interview with the governor. She says she was disappointed when Gardner told her, "National won't let us."

Martinez, whose approval ratings recently dropped below 50 percent but who now serves as head of the Republican Governors Association, may be afraid to jeopardize her national ambitions. Still, Mills says her handlers need "to let her go out and take questions instead of bolting out of the room whenever someone asks her something uncomfortable."

While Martinez' aides have not built press pits to contain journalists, the way Donald Trump's campaign staffers have, there is a noticeable lack of dialogue compared to other governors, according to Mills, who says her husband, legendary government reporter Ernie Mills, never had difficulty getting interviews with other governors before he died in 2003.

"Ernie used to have a beer with Gov. [David] Cargo every week to talk about state government. There was a cooperative spirit then. This group is not at all interested in talking to the press. They use advertising to convince voters, not information," says Mills. "But you can't just whistle past the graveyard."

Independent medical journalist Bryant Furlow also says he's been frustrated by the machine lately.

"Public officials owe accurate information to the public. That goes double for men and women who are paid by taxpayers to answer questions, obviously," Furlow says. "It's just a waste of money to pay public information officers who won't do their jobs or who seem to see their jobs as stonewalling reporters and voters.

"It took me months to get simple explanations from the Human Services Department when I was looking into their suspension of Medicaid funding for behavioral health providers. I wound up filing public records requests because their spokesperson refused to answer even simple questions," he continues. "More than once, I found that what state agency spokespeople told me was misleading or conflicted with what agency officials were saying to one another in emails."

SFR went so far as to file a lawsuit against Martinez in 2013 alleging, among other claims, that her office had engaged in "viewpoint discrimination" by repeatedly ignoring the newspaper's requests for interviews or comments and at the same time providing that information to other news outlets. That case is pending in district court.

In recent months, paid spokespeople from agencies such as the Environment Department, the state Game Commission and the Interstate Stream Commission either outright denied interview requests or refused to talk to reporters; instead, they relied on email exchanges that are sorely lacking in detail. A student intern researching New Mexico's policies on vanity license plates also couldn't secure an interview.

In another instance, a spokesman for the Department of Health refused to answer a repeated yes-or-no question for more than a month, and when confronted about the lack of response, Kenny Vigil, who's paid a salary of $75,000 per year, says he "forgot" to forward a statement that emails show was approved by then-Health Secretary Retta Ward days before SFR's story was published.

Sarah Gustavus, a producer for New Mexico PBS, says her repeated requests to have cabinet secretaries and administration officials appear on New Mexico in Focus have also been denied or ignored entirely.

"Part of informing the public is working with journalists," says Gustavus. "Without hearing from the administration, we have to go on really limited public comments or press releases, and we can't ask any questions. That's a real loss for our audience, and it's a loss for discussion and debate about policy in New Mexico."

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