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$9 Million Lawsuit Filed Against Education Department For 232 Violations Of IPRA Law

on September 8, 2017 - 7:20am
RGB News:
Los Ranchos book publisher, Barbe Awalt, Senior Partner of LPD Press/Rio Grande Books (RGB), has filed a third lawsuit against the New Mexico Public Education Department and NMPED Custodian of Records, Beverly Friedman, for $9,427,800.
The lawsuit, filed in the Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque, asserts that New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) and Beverly Friedman, violated the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) in 199 "3-day" letters by putting the wrong wording on the letters and 33 letters that were completely missing.
The wording is very specific by law – NMSA 1978, 14-2-8, that specifies 15 days or calendar days must be used. NMPED used 15 business days from March 10, 2016, to October 7, 2016, even though for years NMPED had used the correct wording for years and changed back in October of 2016, when Ms. Awalt pointed out to NMPED, numerous times, that NMPED was using the wrong wording.
Using the business days wording gives NMPED extra days to fulfill IPRA requests that violates the IPRA law and gives extra time to fulfill IPRA requests by NMPED.
IPRA law states that a penalty for violating the IPRA law is up to $100 per day per violation that is 199 letters. Letters included in the legal action include: the Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican, Santa Fe Reporter, Las Vegas Optic, The Associated Press (AP), New Mexico Political Report, KOB TV4, New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, CBS News, NAACP, in addition to many law offices, students, teachers, organizations, businesses, and data collectors.
According to records obtained by Ms. Awalt through IPRA, NMPED and Ms. Friedman have a pattern of violating IPRA with IPRA Complaints that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has warned about many times and are on the OAG website. Ms. Friedman has given workshops on the IPRA law and Awalt contends that Ms. Friedman knows what the IPRA law entails and Ms. Friedman has handled IPRA requests for NMPED for 17 years. The Office of the Attorney General also publishes free information for individuals and government agencies, an IPRA Guideline Compliance book so mistakes are not made.
According to Dylan Lange, Assistant Attorney General at OAG, “we recommend that PED review its procedures for responding to public records requests and take any measures needed to ensure that it consistently responds to the three-day response requirement of Section 14-2-8(D).” Ms. Awalt asserts that the violations are a serious matter and have, in fact, broken the IPRA law. Dylan Lange’s opinion is being used in the lawsuit by verifying the wrong wording was used and IPRA was also violated by not including documents requested by Awalt – also in the lawsuit. There are 33 documents that still haven’t surfaced.
Mr. Lange says that using that wrong wording wasn’t used to mislead anyone even though it was done for over seven months. Mr. Lange doesn’t say how he knows the wording wasn’t meant to mislead anyone. The wording was not an accident and had to be changed and changed back by design. Awalt asserts that the law is specific about what can be done and NMPED gets away with not following IPRA law.
The IPRA law does not allow for “accidents” or “not misleading.” Awalt asked who at NMPED ordered that the wording be changed but NMPED refused to give the information. Awalt says, “Who ordered the change and who ordered the wording to be changed back will be asked for at trial so we all know who did the deeds.” Robert McEntyre, spokesperson at NMPED, said that Awalt was, “retaliating” and “trying to settle the score” by using IPRA. Awalt asserts that using IPRA is a right all citizens have by law and is not retaliation or settling the score.
Barbe Awalt is not a crack-pot or serial lawsuit filer. Her first lawsuit in 2016, was for other IPRA violations and that suit had a monetary settlement through Mediation. The second lawsuit is for Breach of Contract - why NMPED used $200,000 of state tax money to buy books in the 2016 Governor’s First Grade Book Initiative when three New Mexico publishers bid unsuccessfully and two New Mexico publishers had lower bids that the winning books from out-of-state. It is the Initiative that unearthed the IPRA documents and violations. LPD Press/Rio Grande Books is the largest, independent book publisher in New Mexico.
In 2014, 2015, and 2017, LPD Press/Rio Grande Books won a part of that year’s Initiative contract while the majority of the Initiative contracts went to an out-of-state publishers.
According to Awalt, “The interesting thing about this IPRA lawsuit is that if I am successful in my lawsuit, anyone can request the same documents and use my lawsuit as precedent. There is the potential that the actions of NMPED may bankrupt New Mexico to the tune of millions of dollars. This is very sad and shows how NMPED does not take IPRA seriously or that NMPED is not fair and welcoming to New Mexico citizens. I wonder what else violates the IPRA law.”
This summer, The Albuquerque Police Department lost an IPRA lawsuit for thousands of dollars. The Plaintiff and his lawyer were awarded damages by the same Court.
Awalt asserts, “If we, as citizens, violated any law, we would have to take responsibility and pay the price. It seems NMPED has someone looking out for them and allows them to break the IPRA law. This is a clear case of a double standard.” Awalt has still more IPRA violations to act upon.