Bill would cap fees for locating property owners

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

A bill backed by the state Taxation and Revenue Department would
limit how much people who locate the owners of unclaimed property held
by the state can charge.

The measure (HB 178) caps the fees for those finders at not more than 10 percent of the value of the property that is recovered.

Department of Taxation and Revenue Secretary Rick Homans said the
measure is meant to protect the public. But one finder who would be
affected by the change said the bill is aimed at him. Last year the
state settled a large public records lawsuit he filed against the tax
department.

“The legislation provides a specific maximum rate that can be
charged by finders instead of leaving to (the Taxation and Revenue
Department) the job of determining what is an “unconscionable” fee, as
currently stated in the law,” Homans said in a statement.

“The bill is being proposed to protect citizens from being
overcharged by finders, and to establish clear rules and rates for
finders to follow,” he said.

Private investigator Eric Griego, who among other things helps
people recover money from the sale of delinquent properties, said the
measure is in retaliation against him.

“They (the Taxation and Revenue Department) lost in court on the
open records lawsuit so now they retaliate by introducing this
anti-capitalist bill that limits what I can charge,” he said. “In the
end this hurts the public more than it does me.”

Homans said the measure’s “sole motivation” is to protect people from being overcharged.

Griego, who charges between five and 33 percent for his services
depending on the complexity of the case, said that in many cases, the
cost of locating owners and returning their property would exceed the
proposed cap.

Griego in 2006 sued the department, alleging the state was illegally withholding documents he uses in his business.

One part of the lawsuit claimed the department was improperly
putting limits on the number of records Griego could request at one
time from the Unclaimed Property Office.

The lawsuit ended in a settlement, under which the state will pay
Griego $117,500. In addition, it will pay the lawyers’ fees for the New
Mexico Foundation for Open Government, which total $25,970. The
department also paid at least $31,000 in outside attorneys’ fees and
thousands more on in-house lawyers, according to documents obtained by
the New Mexican.

The department maintained the documents were not public; Griego and
the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said they were, as did
District Judge Valerie Huling.

The measure, sponsored by Anna Crook, R-Clovis, is pending in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com.