NMPolitics.net is asking N.M. Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office to look into transparency problems the news organization encountered during its recent investigation of Spaceport America.
The investigation found challenges, but also reason for optimism about the spaceport’s future. Among the issues, NMPolitics.net found that the the state agency that runs the spaceport violated transparency laws several times this year in response to requests for documents filed by NMPolitics.net and others. Those violations, in addition to other possible infractions, blocked or delayed public access to information about the spaceport.
And that made evaluating the spaceport’s economic impact in New Mexico difficult.
Heath Haussamen, NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher, filed five complaints with the AG on Monday alleging violations and possible violations of the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA). In some cases Haussamen is asking the AG to formally declare that the N.M. Spaceport Authority violated transparency laws in its interactions with him. In others he’s seeking legal clarification about what the law intends.
Here’s more about the complaints filed by Haussamen, who reported and wrote NMPolitics.net’s recent series on the spaceport:
• Haussamen asked the spaceport earlier this year for all documents that factored into an analysis that claimed the spaceport was having a positive economic impact in New Mexico. The spaceport said there were no supporting documents. Haussamen believes the agency possesses records that factored into that analysis that should have been released. In addition, he believes Chief Financial Officer Zach De Gregorio’s notes from interviews related to the analysis should have been maintained and released. (Read the complaint)
• The spaceport released five lease agreements with its “permanent tenants” but redacted parts of four — including rent and fee information, sections that indicate where at Spaceport America companies are operating, insurance information – and, in the SpaceX lease, even the contact information for two company officials. Haussamen is seeking clarification on whether the redactions were legal and whether it was proper for the spaceport to charge $1 per page — $290 total — for electronic copies of the leases. (Read the complaint)
• Haussamen discovered in June that the Spaceport Authority had blocked him from following its Twitter account — from seeing or responding to its tweets. He requested the complete list of Twitter accounts the agency had blocked. Such a list is accessible in the agency’s Twitter account settings and can be preserved as a screen shot, PDF or other document. The agency unblocked Haussamen on Twitter but refused to hand over the list, saying IPRA “does not reference Twitter.” Haussamen is seeking clarification on whether state law requires that the list be released. (Read the complaint)
• On May 4, Haussamen requested minutes of the Spaceport Authority’s March 29 meeting, which OMA required by law to be available by April 8. That record would document what happened at the meeting. His request went unanswered, even though IPRA requires a response to all requests within three days. On May 18, the spaceport’s CEO, Dan Hicks, said the draft minutes weren’t yet ready. He provided them the next day, on May 19. Haussamen believes the Spaceport Authority violated OMA by not making the minutes available within 10 days and IPRA by not responding to his request. (Read the complaint)
The spaceport made some transparency improvements during Haussamen’s investigation. It changed a policy to allow people to bring bring their own digitizing equipment and avoid paying the agency to make copies. And spaceport officials made themselves accessible to answer questions.
But there’s more work to do, Haussamen said. Some problems he encountered appeared to be due to a lack of understanding of the state’s transparency laws. Spaceport officials also believe some information, such as rent payments from companies doing business there, should be secret, even though others Haussamen interviewed disagreed.
“My investigation found evidence that Spaceport America may finally be on the verge of realizing some of the dreams New Mexicans had a decade ago when they decided to build the facility,” Haussamen said. “But this level of secrecy is unacceptable. To earn New Mexicans’ trust, the spaceport must become more transparent. I hope the AG helps make that happen.”
Haussamen’s complaints are the second batch against the spaceport in recent months. Balderas’ office determined in August that the Spaceport Authority had violated IPRA four times in its interactions with KTSM-TV reporter Patrick Hayes – by improperly attempting to charge fees for public records, failing to provide records in electronic format, prohibiting the use of digitizing equipment, and denying a request without explanation.
The Spaceport Authority responded that it had not violated IPRA and said the determination from the AG’s office contained “legal inaccuracies.” AG spokesman James Hallinan said his office “absolutely” stands by its findings in Hayes’ case.
But what happens next isn’t clear. There are no criminal penalties for violating IPRA. The public records statute can be enforced with a civil lawsuit. Such a lawsuit can be brought by the attorney general or a district attorney, which is uncommon, or the person whose request for records was denied, which is more common.
Such court cases can be time-intensive and costly, though judges sometimes award legal fees to plaintiffs. A judge can also impose a fine of up to $100 per day that records are improperly withheld.
Violating OMA is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $500, but enforcement is rare. Fifteen years ago, five members of the Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education were convicted of violating OMA and fined.