Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.

It was supposed to be yet another closed-door meeting with a handful of legislators to decide how to address growing calls for the removal of one of the legislature’s most powerful staff directors; but instead, the tables were turned.

Only 10 members of the committee met today, and in a surprising (to some) turn of events, the motion to move the discussion to an executive session failed in a 5-5 vote. All House Democratic members, along with Democratic Senator Harold Pope Jr., voted to kill the motion on the grounds that it would not allow for an objective discussion concerning reports of Rachel Gudgel’s conduct as director of the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC).

The Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC) is one of the most powerful and influential components of the Legislature. It oversees most research and policy concerning public education in New Mexico. It’s that information provided by the LESC that helps legislators make decisions on the education budget, which is over 45 percent of the state’s total operating budget.

At the helm of the LESC is staff director Rachel Gudgel, who has been with the LESC since 2015. LESC staff brought allegations of racist comments and other allegations of mistreatment against Gudgel both in 2017 and 2019. In 2017 nothing was done with the report. In 2020 a few key leaders in the LESC committee hired an outside Santa Fe attorney, Thomas Hnasko, to investigate the claims and produce a report. That report was again only shared among a few key legislators in the LESC who were voting members. Gudgel was given a two-week unpaid suspension and a professional coach, according to multiple staff members and legislators with knowledge of the outcome.

In the past several weeks, voting members who were not privy to the report, along with non-voting members of the committee, have demanded to see its contents. Former staffers who made the original complaints spoke exclusively to The Paper. about the lack of transparency and the lack of action taken by the committee concerning Gudgel’s behavior.

Removal of Legislature’s Top Education Staffer Called for After Allegations of Racism | The Paper (Jun. 25, 2021)

Those reports prompted House Speaker Brian Egolf and other legislators to call for a hearing and review of Gudgel’s conduct, which was supposed to happen today. Instead, the committee voted that the investigating attorney Hnasko and the professional coach who was hired to the tune of $60,000 taxpayer dollars should be present for questioning by the whole committee.

But any future hearings on the topic may be in jeopardy. According to an official present at the meeting, Senator Soules said, “Today was our opportunity,” before abruptly leaving the meeting.

One LESC member who voted against moving to the executive session, a hearing without the public present, was Representative Derek Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo). He said he was appalled by the unprofessional behavior of the committee. “It was insulting as a professional and an elected official. If there are only a few members of that committee that are entitled to that information in that report and the rest of us just have to accept, it is entirely unfair,” he said. “The fact that it was the two African American legislators, two Hispanic legislators and one Native American legislator [barred from receiving the report] is not lost on me.”

A meeting for the LESC committee has yet to be scheduled.

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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.

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