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.