Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Herrera Fires Employees Who Talked to FBI

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 8, 2010

Secretary of State Mary Herrera has fired two of her administrators who talked to the FBI about possible wrongdoing in her office.

The EspaƱola lawyer representing both Manny Vildasol and James Flores on Tuesday formally notified the state Risk Management Division that his clients might be suing, claiming the terminations violate the Whistleblower Protection Act.

"As you are aware, they reported to the FBI what they believed to be criminal acts within her office and immediately after the media reported they had spoken to the FBI, they were both placed on administrative leave and now, FIRED!" Rudy Martin said in his letter to Risk Management.

"Both of my clients have been accused of creating a hostile work environment for allegedly recording employees at the office," Martin continued. "My client Mr. Vildasol, never returned to the Secretary of State's office after the initial news story broke and Mr. Flores was accused of acts which he did not participate in. The actions by Ms. Herrera serve only as a guise in her attempts to justify her retaliatory conduct toward my clients."

Deputy Secretary of State Francisco Trujillo said Tuesday that he could verify Flores, former public information officer and Vildasol, whom was office administrator, were no longer employed by the office, but could not provide details because the firings were "personnel matters."

"I can tell you that after the investigations were completed, (the firings) have nothing to do with whistle-blowing," Trujillo said in a telephone interview.

Martin has said his clients, who also include former Bureau of Elections Director A.J. Salazar, have talked to the FBI about such issues as Secretary of State's Office workers going to political events during work hours.

In separate letters to Vildasol and Flores dated Sept. 3, Herrera thanked each for his services after saying, "your services as an at-will Governor Exempt employee have been terminated effective immediately."

Herrera does not have to state a reason to fire exempt employees such as Vildasol and Flores.

Although the term "hostile work environment" typically is used in relation to alleged sexual harassment, no such charges have emerged in the ongoing Secretary of State's Office controversies.

In Vildasol's case, members of Herrera's information technology staff on Aug. 18 complained to Herrera about Vildasol creating a hostile environment by videotaping them working on Herrera's personal laptop computer, which had been infected with viruses. Some of that footage later appeared on a KOB news report about problems in the Secretary of State's Office.

It's not clear why Flores is suspected of recording employees.

On Aug. 24, Trujillo wrote Flores saying, "the Secretary of State has received a complaint about a hostile work environment and is concerned with what appears to be an altered media distribution list. You are the subject of the investigation."

The reference to the "altered media distribution list" might support a claim by some Secretary of State's Office sources that Herrera suspected Flores of sending e-mail news releases to Santa Fe County Clerk Valerie Espinoza — who is a critic of Herrera — and to Salazar, who resigned earlier this year, sending Herrera a scathing letter accusing her of several possible violations of law or policy, including having her staff do political campaign work in the office during work hours.

Herrera is seeking re-election to a second term. Her opponent is Republican state Sen. Dianna Duran of Tularosa.