OPINION: Working from Maine, a muckraker targets New Mexico's governor

·5 min read

Jan. 21—Bruce Wetherbee, 71, isn't exactly a reporter. He's more like the old legmen — and women — who gathered information in the trenches of a city, then fed it to a reporter sitting at a typewriter in a smoky newsroom.

Wetherbee is unconventional in other ways. He lives in Maine but covers politics and policy issues 2,500 miles away in New Mexico. It's a comfortable fit for him, despite the distance.

"I still write about New Mexico because it's the place where I lived for 18 years," said Wetherbee, who moved to New England so he and his wife could be close to aged parents.

While in New Mexico, Wetherbee dug up stories and agitated on behalf of working families. He once served as president of the Northern New Mexico Central Labor Council.

Whether contributing to unionism or news stories, he said, his approach was the same. He tried to hold politicians accountable while looking out for people who didn't have lobbyists or lawyers at their disposal.

Conflict and confrontation were part of the job, no matter which arena he was in.

Backers of former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez sued Wetherbee and a half-dozen other people after emails were intercepted from her 2010 campaign account. The pirate was an insider: Martinez's former campaign manager, Jamie Estrada.

Wetherbee stole nothing. But, like newsmen who received the Pentagon Papers, he became privy to internal correspondence. Information he and a co-defendant obtained was publicized by a liberal PAC. This led to claims Wetherbee violated the federal wiretapping act.

He represented himself in the lawsuit, which was settled in 2016. The terms were never disclosed. In a rare moment of silence, Wetherbee said he couldn't discuss the case.

None of this should suggest he aims only at Republicans. He styles himself as a muckraker who pays close attention to high-ranking politicians in both parties.

From his one-man bureau in New England, he broke the story last year of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham authorizing pay raises of $7,500 to $19,000 to eight members of her staff. Lujan Grisham drew heavy criticism for the increases, awarded during the coronavirus pandemic when many people were out of work.

"I checked the State Personnel Office records, though I'm not sure why I did it," Wetherbee said. "Maybe it was a hunch and nothing more."

He alerted reporters in New Mexico to his findings. Many ran with the story. Wetherbee said he was unconcerned with being credited, though some news organizations acknowledged him.

"I love to work for other reporters," said Wetherbee, who also publishes his stories on an online site called The Candle.

Courtrooms are another of his forums.

Wetherbee sued Lujan Grisham's office and two other state agencies last year, claiming they denied him public records to cover up details of harassment and intimidation complaints against a state employee.

Lujan Grisham's spokeswoman called the lawsuit baseless, and a state district judge dismissed it on technical grounds. But the judge allowed Wetherbee to refile his claim. Wetherbee says he's about to do so, again representing himself.

He said Lujan Grisham described herself as an advocate for victims of harassment when she drove state Sen. Michael Padilla out of the 2018 race for lieutenant governor.

Padilla years earlier had been accused of sexual harassment while working for the city of Albuquerque. Two women received a settlement totaling $149,000. A jury awarded another of Padilla's accusers $1,200 for counseling costs and $101,000 for legal fees.

Padilla said he was innocent, railroaded by vengeful employees as he tried to improve Albuquerque's 911 call center.

Lujan Grisham didn't want him on the ticket. Padilla quit the race under duress.

Wetherbee claims the governor has been less vigilant since taking office. He said her administration was an obstacle as he tried to gather records on Kenneth Owens, who was accused of bullying people and harassing a woman while working under then-Attorney General Gary King.

Owens resigned from the Attorney General's Office but later rejoined state government. He has risen to acting deputy director of operations and mediation bureau chief of the state Workers' Compensation Administration.

An assistant said Owens was working at home. He did not respond to a message asking for his side of the story.

Wetherbee's criticisms aren't the only ones Lujan Grisham has received regarding sexual harassment.

The governor's campaign paid $150,000 to Lujan Grisham's onetime spokesman, James Hallinan. He said Lujan Grisham poured water on his crotch and grabbed his crotch during a staff meeting.

Lujan Grisham's camp said the settlement was made to avoid legal expenses and distractions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Wetherbee, not hiding his advocacy, sees Lujan Grisham as vulnerable in the November election.

"She deserves to be taken to the woodshed, and that may come in the months ahead," he said.

Kendall Witmer, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham's campaign, said all is well.

"Governor Lujan Grisham is in one of the strongest positions an incumbent governor has ever been in. In the last three years, she has demonstrated that she is a strong, smart, capable leader who always puts New Mexico first," Witmer said.

Wetherbee sees a different story. With a website and plenty of shoe leather, he tries to make his case — all the way from Maine.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.