The New Mexico Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC)—one of the most powerful and influential components of the Legislature—is going through a tumultuous time right now, caused by a very internal personnel issue that has now made its way to a very public stage. Allegations of racist comments and a hostile work environment, as well as legislators calling for a more transparent process in the disciplinary process, are just a few of the complaints from staff and legislators going back at least five years.
Fed-up legislators are now going public, and staff members are sharing more details in an exclusive series of interviews with The Paper.
What Is Going On at the LESC?
If the LESC is the starting point, then the LESC staff is the starting pistol. New Mexico’s legislators are unpaid, often with day jobs, most without any individual staff. The committee is made up of lawmakers from both parties and is the first and sometimes only place legislators learn about pending education legislation in New Mexico. The LESC is the main source of information for these lawmakers to make decisions on legislation that touches every child or family benefiting from public education.
Rachel Gudgel has been the staff director, at a salary of $129,000 per year, of this small group of a dozen LESC policymakers and researchers since 2015. Originally from Indiana, Gudgel graduated from UNM School of Law and previously worked for the Legislative Finance Committee before she worked for LESC. As director of LESC, she oversees what research, information and data will be provided to the lawmakers on the committee of 10 voting members for their decision-making concerning education legislation.
Representative Sheryl Williams Stapleton (D-Albuquerque) has served in the Legislature since 1995 and was the first African American woman elected to the New Mexico Legislature.
She is all too familiar with complaints from staffers within the LESC and says there’s a pattern of behavior that is perpetuated in the LESC with Gudgel. In 2017 Stapleton says she was approached by an African-American male staffer of the LESC and several female Hispanic staff members about Gudgel making racist remarks. Stapleton says she wrote a report and gave it to then-Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and Senator Mimi Stewart, then chair of the LESC. But nothing came of the report, Stapleton says. When asked why the staff members came to her with their complaints, she said, “I was a voting member of the LESC, and the majority leader of the House. I’m also Black.”
When asked why she believed nothing was done about the report in 2017, Stapleton replied, “The institutional racism in the Legislature has been going on for a long time.” She went on to explain that, “These staff members had no one else to go to. And that report, just like this newest report, is hidden from the public and most of the voting members of the LESC.”
The Paper. asked about the 2017 report and why nothing was done with it. Speaker Egolf said that he and his staff did not remember receiving a report from Stapleton and felt that, if they had, they would have immediately reported it to the responsible parties. He iterated that, as speaker, he is not legally able to discipline or terminate a LESC employee.
Although the complaints from 2017 may have come from different staff, there was another set of complaints that triggered an investigation just two years later. Five former staffers filed a complaint in 2019 against Gudgel for creating a hostile work environment, as well as inappropriate treatment of staff. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) and Rep. Christine Trujillo were briefed about the complaints and Santa Fe attorney Thomas Hnasko was brought in to conduct an investigation, which was paid for with taxpayer dollars. Legislators with knowledge of the outcome tell The Paper. the result was a two-week suspension for Gudgel and a leadership coach. Sounds like the problem was taken care of, right? Well, problems in the LESC are far from over.
Although he did not recall the 2017 complaint against Gudgel, speaker Egolf says he sent the complaints he received from 2019 to the chair and vice chair of the LESC Committee in 2020. At that time Sen. Mimi Stewart was the chair and Rep. Christine Trujillo was the vice chair.
Reached by phone by The Paper., former Sen. Papen said that any investigation and report concerning staff at the LESC was “a private matter that had already been dealt with.” Sen. Stewart says she remembers receiving a report from Stapleton in 2017, but she said, “That’s not the issue now with the more recent complaints, and that was a different situation.”
Two former LESC staff members involved in the investigation told The Paper. that complainants requested a copy of the 2019 report, but were denied. However, while denied a written copy, at least two complainants said they had the report read aloud to them by Hnasko. In the report, staffers said Hnasko’s findings confirmed the complaints against Gudgel, which included: gender bias, race bias, sexual orientation bias, abuse of staff and creation of a hostile work environment. Stewart told The Paper. that the investigative report issued last year was confidential and has been shared only with a few legislators who oversee Gudgel’s work for the LESC. The Paper. has not independently viewed the report.
When Rep. Trujillo met with Gudgel after the complaint and consequences of it she says Gudgel “said to us that she would improve her behavior – she said she was sincere but over time what has happened we continue to see staff turnover to a great degree so my concerns are still relevant.”
What Are the Complaints?
Several former staff members who spoke with The Paper. said they had been present with Gudgel at an event in 2019 in Dulce, N.M., following a LESC meeting when she made disparaging comments about Native American students. “It’s not like making beaded sandals is going to improve student outcomes,” she reportedly said. Staff found it so disturbing it even caused one staff member of color to leave crying from the event.
Former staffers told The Paper. Gudgel had bias and derogatory behavior against people of color, women, people with children and others who were “different.” The complaint called it a “pattern” and said it was part of the “everyday environment” of the office, as was the “verbal and mental abuse” of staff. Several also said they heard her use “pow-wow” when calling a meeting of her staff on multiple occasions.
Former staff members who spoke with The Paper. said that the combination of having no human resources in the legislature to go to and no procedure to follow to get help caused them to leave their positions at the LESC for other jobs.
Allegations of racist statements continued well after the Dulce event. Staffers say that Gudgel made a comment to the effect that, “She was not racist because she had traveled to Mexico with one of her friends and the village they were staying in—and they would give children pesos.”
Concerning women, especially women with children, former staffers had multiple complaints. A former staffer with children said Gudgel told her that having children was not conducive to her working for LESC (which oversees children’s public education). One particular incident was a late-night work session where a staffer wanted to go home to her young child. Gudgel allegedly responded by saying, “If you feel like you need to get home to your family, maybe you need to prioritize between your career and your family.”
Several women said Gudgel required female staffers to wear heels. Another former staffer said Gudgel would make comments about the way she dressed and her body saying, “I am a Mexican-American woman. I have curves. And so [she was] making comments about the way I dress, making comments about my body and the way my body looks in certain clothing.”
What Happens Now?
The Albuquerque Journal reported that, in a letter to legislative leaders this week, Wilfred Herrera Jr., chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and Lt. Governor of Laguna Pueblo, said Gudgel should be removed as director and that the results of an investigative report concerning her management should be released to the public.
On June 23 the chair of the LESC, Senator Bill Soules (D-Las Cruces), announced there would be an executive session of the LESC next week to discuss personnel matters. No date or time was set. After being pushed for detail by Representative Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo), Soules stated that the session would be about the LESC staff director and recent media reports. Soules also said that the executive session would only include voting members of the committee (which is only about a third of the lawmakers on the committee). Rep. Christine Trujillo (D-Albuquerque) told The Paper. that excluding non-voting members “is a crock of shit. I want a much more open process. This is taxpayer dollars. They have a right to know.”
Trujillo also added, “We [the committee] must stand up and lead with our actions and hold everyone accountable.” Lente said this matter had to be addressed transparently and head-on, saying that, “If we were to brush this aside, that sets the tone for how we move forward as a state.” Stapleton feels the same. “It’s not fair that the whole committee doesn’t hear what happened and what’s in that report. It’s wrong to keep it hidden.”
House Speaker Egolf sent a memo to the All Pueblo Council of Governors on June 25 stating, “I share your concerns about Ms. Gudgel’s ability to have a productive working relationship with Native American members of the Legislature, leaders of Pueblos and Tribal Nations, and leaders of school districts that serve student populations of predominantly Native population. I understand that you lack confidence in Ms. Gudgel’s ability to lead going forward, and I cannot disagree with your views,” he said.
Egolf went on to say, “I am planning to ask the Chair of the LESC to initiate, with the voting members of the LESC, a process of conducting a thorough and immediate evaluation of the LESC Director’s job performance and ability to continue in her position. I will request that the form of the evaluation process would ultimately be decided by the 10 voting members of the LESC.”
Read Speaker Egolf’s full memo here:[embeddoc url=”https://abq.news/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/20210818-Chair-Herrera-1-1.pdf”]