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Apr. 13—The Republican Governors Association pounced on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday following revelations of a settlement of at least $62,500 with a former campaign staffer who accused the first-term Democrat of grabbing his genitals.
The association, which already has put a target on the governor's back as she seeks a second term in office, dubbed the settlement "a $62,500 crotch grab."
"After years of vehement denial, Governor Lujan Grisham's now revealed sexual harassment settlement certainly raises questions of why she tried to discredit her alleged victim," association spokesman Will Reinert wrote in an email. "Where there is smoke there is usually fire, and Lujan Grisham just wrote a check for $62,500 worth of kindling."
Actually, a series of checks.
According to campaign finance reports filed Monday with the Secretary of State's Office, the governor's campaign, New Mexicans for Michelle, made five monthly payments of $12,500 each between November and March to Buckley Beale LLP, an Atlanta-based law firm representing James Hallinan, who served as Lujan Grisham's communications director during her candidacy for governor.
"Governor Lujan Grisham and Mr. Hallinan have resolved any differences or issues to their satisfaction. I am not able to provide any further information," Rachel Berlin Benjamin, a senior partner at the firm, wrote in an email.
Hallinan, who did not return a message seeking comment, accused Lujan Grisham of sexual assault during a routine campaign meeting in the months leading up to the 2018 general election.
Hallinan, who first alluded to the alleged assault in a 2019 Christmas Day tweet, told The New Mexican in an interview that year Lujan Grisham had dumped water on his crotch and then touched his genitals. He described the incident as a "slap and grab" that haunted him daily.
"It's eaten away at me every single day, all the time. And I'm not the only one, like I tweeted," he said at the time. "They can try to defame me and say I'm horrible, that I'm this or that. No one is perfect, and they can criticize me all they want, but that doesn't change what happened."
The settlement involved Hallinan, the governor and her gubernatorial campaign, and Dominic Gabello, who worked as her campaign adviser and now works in the Governor's Office.
Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's press secretary, wrote in an email that "the state doesn't have any comment as this is not official state business. Our office maintains there is no merit to the allegations."
In a written statement, campaign spokesman Jared Leopold said the agreement with Hallinan settles "numerous dubious and disputed potential claims made by Mr. Hallinan arising from his employment in 2018 with the campaign organization and his subsequent search for employment."
In the 2019 interview with The New Mexican, Hallinan said he tried to leave Lujan Grisham's campaign after the incident, but Gabello encouraged him not to go to the police and pressured him to stay on the campaign staff until the election.
"He pressured me on the phone later that night not to quit. I tried to quit," Hallinan said. "And I wanted to talk and they didn't want me to talk to law enforcement."
Leopold also said the settlement agreement "fully resolves the disputed potential claims," but he did not respond when asked if the total settlement was $62,500 or if future payments were planned.
"Governor Lujan Grisham, the campaign organization and Mr. Gabello strenuously deny that there is any merit or truth to Mr. Hallinan's claims including his claims about difficulty finding or keeping work after the campaign," he said in the statement. "They reached a settlement in order to avoid the continuing distraction and significant expense of possible litigation and allow them to concentrate on working for the people of New Mexico during this pandemic."
Reinert, the Republican Governors Association spokesman, claimed the payments to Hallinan "certainly suggest that there must be some truth to the story" and wrote that Lujan Grisham "should publicly apologize to her victim for her behavior."
While Leopold wouldn't disclose whether the settlement exceeds $62,500, he called Reinert's comments a Republican political attack that isn't credible or true.
"There is no merit or truth to the claims," he wrote.
In campaign finance reports, the payments were listed only as "legal expenses" to Buckley Beale LLP but didn't state a purpose. The Republican Party of New Mexico tweeted that Lujan Grisham is "quietly paying off a former staffer" who accused her of grabbing his crotch after pouring a bottle of water on his genitals.
Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, said the payments from campaign funds are a permissible expenditure under the Campaign Finance Act.
"Since the whole thing deals with what happened during the campaign, and he was a campaign staffer, that is an acceptable use of those funds in that context," he said.
The act states that "legal expenses specifically related to the campaign or legislative office are permissible uses of campaign funds." It also states that "expenditures that are reasonably attributable to the candidate's campaign and not to personal use or personal living expenses are permissible campaign expenditures."
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.