New Mexico Nominee Withdraws Over Liability for Background Check

By | March 2, 2011

The former U.S. senator and astronaut who withdrew his name from consideration as New Mexico’s next energy secretary is defending his stance on background checks for top state government officials.

Harrison Schmitt used an editorial in the Albuquerque Journal to explain why he withdrew as Gov. Susana Martinez’s pick to head the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. His withdrawal was announced by the governor earlier this month after he declined to comply with certain rules involving a background check.

Schmitt’s editorial marks the first time the former Apollo astronaut has publicly commented on the dispute over the background check process. His editorial follows one published a week earlier by Sen. Linda Lopez, the chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, who had called out Schmitt for not complying with the process. Lopez’s committee is the first stop in the Senate confirmation process for top state officials.

Schmitt told The Associated Press in an e-mail Monday that he’s disappointed he won’t have the opportunity as energy secretary to directly help the Martinez administration as it looks for ways to create jobs and boost New Mexico’s economy. However, he called New Mexico his home and said he personally hopes to “continue to contribute to the protection and proper use of its spectacular natural resources.”

Schmitt said he agreed to a background investigation that would have allowed private investigators access to his personal information, but he did not want to release the investigators from liability for the misuse of any information gathered as part of the check.

“The issue was not whether background checks should be conducted. Of course they should be,” Schmitt wrote in the editorial. “The issue between Lopez and Gov. Susana Martinez and me was whether private eyes would be held accountable for actions unrelated to the confirmation process.”

Without liability, Schmitt said investigators have no legal incentives to protect a nominee’s personal information.

Lopez said Monday that she saw Schmitt’s editorial and stands by her previous comments that all high-level appointees must undergo extensive reviews if they are to be entrusted with billions of dollars of state expenditures and the authority to promulgate regulations that impact citizens across the state.

The New Mexico Senate is required by the state constitution to confirm cabinet secretaries and other top officials. Part of that process includes the background check by the Rules Committee, which uses the attorney general’s office and an investigator to conduct the review. The background check includes a search for any prior criminal convictions as well as civil court actions, a review of disclosure statements related to potential conflicts of interest and ownership in business entities and verification of financial circumstances or improprieties such as bankruptcies or tax liens.

The Senate has been conducting background checks since 2007 and dozens of government officials have gone through the process, including other members of Martinez’s recently appointed cabinet. Lopez said previously she sympathized with Schmitt and other nominees’ discomfort with the background checks.

Schmitt took issue with the comment, saying it implied he wasn’t comfortable with having a background check done. He said he has undergone extensive checks by multiple federal agencies throughout his professional life.

“Mandatory background checks are not a ‘discomfort’; they are a fact of public life,” Schmitt wrote. “These checks protect people in all walks of life; they protect our children from predators and our nation from subversion.”

In his editorial, Schmitt asked who was vetting the investigators responsible for vetting state officials. Pointing to campaign contributions, he questioned whether the investigators’ employers have political allegiances that lean to one party more than another.

Schmitt, who grew up in Silver City and has a doctorate in geology from Harvard, was one of the last men to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. He served one term in the U.S. Senate in the late 1970s and has been working as an aerospace consultant.

His nomination to lead the state agency responsible for energy development had garnered much attention given his comments in recent years regarding global warming. He disagrees with scientists who contend humans are causing global warming.

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