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By Albuquerque Journal
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Opinion: Money won't put allegations out of mind


Last updated 4/24/2021 at 3:14pm

The settlement between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and former campaign spokesman James Hallinan, who accused her of inappropriate conduct during a campaign meeting, is right out of the informal PR manual on how to deal with potential fallout from a sordid allegation.

First, say the claim is absolutely without merit, even scurrilous and defamatory. Then, open up a checkbook and pay the person making the allegations, with details shrouded in confidentiality. Finally, say the settlement was made only to avoid “the continuing distraction and significant expense of possible litigation.”

Donald Trump did a lot of that.

Hallinan, who now runs his own communications company, accused Lujan Grisham in a 2019 Christmas Day tweet of pouring water on his crotch, then grabbing his crotch through his clothes as she laughed, in mid-2018 in front of other staffers. He went public with his claim a year after leaving the campaign and says he was talked out of reporting it by the campaign manager.

Of course anybody can say anything. Proving it is another matter. That’s what courts are for. Put up or shut up. According to the Governor’s Office, other staff members at the meeting referenced by Hallinan say the alleged wrongdoing did not happen. But there won’t be a judicial determination of the truth thanks to a previously undisclosed agreement reached late last year. No lawsuit was ever filed, but documents filed this month with the Secretary of State show the governor’s campaign has paid Hallinan $62,500 in five monthly $12,500 payments November through March, listed as legal expenses. It isn’t clear if more will be made. If there is a release or settlement agreement, it has not been made public.

Hallinan, a familiar political operative, isn’t talking. His Atlanta-based attorney, Rachel Berlin Benjamin, said the sides “have resolved any differences or issues to their satisfaction. I am not able to provide any further information.”

A spokesman for the governor said the payments were part of a settlement resolving “numerous dubious and disputed potential claims by Hallinan, including issues regarding his search for employment after the 2018 campaign.” Getting rid of the “distraction” is important and allows the governor and her team “to concentrate on working for the people of New Mexico during this pandemic.”

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office said the payments were an appropriate use of campaign funds since they were spent on a campaign personnel issue. It’s up for debate if the governor’s campaign contributors agree.

It appears the heretofore confidential agreement will head off a lawsuit. But will it eliminate the “distraction?” Not a chance. The Republican Governors Association pounced, noting $62,500 is a lot of money for a sexual harassment scandal Lujan Grisham originally called “bizarre,” “slanderous” and “categorically false.” Lujan Grisham is head of the Democratic Governors Association and a political target — at a time when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is struggling with a host of sexual misconduct allegations. Expect this topic to come up over and over in future campaigns.

Campaign cash, not taxpayer dollars, bought the silence. But it won’t put to rest the truth or falsity of the allegations — unfortunate for the governor and New Mexicans.

— Albuquerque Journal


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