A new lawsuit accuses Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration of directing state agencies to withhold public records to protect a government official who was promoted despite previously having been accused of bullying and harassment.
Bruce Wetherbee — a journalist and labor advocate who once lived in Santa Fe and now lives in New England, where he publishes The Candle, an online publication with a focus on government and issues that affect working families — filed the complaint Friday against the state Department of Workforce Solutions, the New Mexico Workers Compensation Administration and the Governor’s Office.
The lawsuit accuses the state agencies of withholding public records about the background of Workers Compensation Acting Deputy Director and Mediations Bureau Chief Kenneth Owens at the behest of the governor and asks the court to compel the agencies to produce the records. The lawsuit also asks to award Wetherbee an unspecified amount of damages plus legal costs.
A spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham’s office called the allegations “baseless” and declined to comment on the lawsuit in an email Monday. A spokeswoman for the Workers Compensation Administration said the agency is reviewing the documents and declined to comment.
In 2015, while working as an assistant attorney general under then-Attorney General Gary King, Owens was accused of bullying and inappropriate behavior toward female employees of a nonprofit organization for which he had oversight duties, according to court records and media reports at the time.
Among the allegations in a lawsuit filed by United South Broadway Corporation in 2015 were claims Owens had attempted to assert control over the employees of the company — a nonprofit that worked with New Mexicans facing foreclosure — and behaved unprofessionally toward female employees who had more experience in relevant areas.
According to the 2015 lawsuit, when Owens was requested to stop interfering with agency staff work, he “became visibly upset, yelling and acting inappropriately whenever his authority was questioned. This behavior, the lawsuit said, was most commonly directed at female employees. The lawsuit also accused Owens of pursing an inappropriate relationship with at least one female employee.
Owens resigned from the Attorney General’s Office shortly after the complaint was filed, the lawsuit says, and two years later was hired by the Workers Compensation Administration as a mediation attorney. He later was promoted to a supervisory position over women attorneys who were more qualified, more experienced and had more seniority, the lawsuit said.
He subsequently was promoted to the position of acting deputy director, the lawsuit said, an exempt position which requires the approval of the Governor’s Office.
According to Wetherbee’s complaint, Lujan Grisham’s staff interviewed Owens prior to his appointment in 2019. Owens later withdrew his name for consideration after he was questioned again by the governor’s staff “about issues that came up in a background check,” the lawsuit says.
But a few months later, according to the complaint, Workers Compensation Administration Director Loretta Lopez “coordinated” his appointment to the position “in an acting capacity with the full salary of deputy director.”
In response to a request for Owens’ salary, a spokeswoman for the Workers Compensation Administration said Lopez directed her to tell a reporter to file a written request for the information.
Wetherbee requested a copy of Owens’ background check from the Governor’s Office. He was told it didn’t have one, according to the complaint. After Wetherbee threatened to file a lawsuit over the issue, an associate general counsel governor’s counsel wrote him back and said the background check had been found.
“While a document was eventually produced,” Wetherbee’s lawsuit says, “not all the background information requested was produced.”
Wetherbee says in his complaint the Human Rights Bureau of the Workers Compensation Administration also stymied his efforts to obtain information pertaining to Owens by refusing to produce complaints filed with the bureau.
After first claiming the records were exempt from release because they involved a pending litigation, the lawsuit says, the agency switched tactics and told Wetherbee the WCA couldn’t release the documents because it is part of a work-sharing agreement with the federal government, which prohibits their release.