Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Column: Doña Ana County

I hope and believe that the Doña Ana County Commission is moving toward a full – and fully independent – investigation of the problems with top-level county management.

Jury verdicts in Slevin and Granados are but the tip of the iceberg.  The Slevin verdict was huge, but the Granados verdict more significant, because much of the testimony pointed to systemic management problems.

Privately, employees and former employees had described working in “a climate of fear.”  In Granados, loyal employees testified to fears of retaliation for their testimony.

Employees had told me of intimidation.  Several witnesses looked intimidated.

People had spoken of the management styles of Sue Padilla and Silvia Sierra as based less on performance than on who’s “in” or “out” with the boss.  Some trial testimony portrayed the same thing.

How significant is the problem?

I’ve spoken with many employees and former employees.  I’ve tried to keep an open mind.  I’ve assessed credibility and tried to verify things independently.  Since I do not have access to all the documents and some folks are not free to talk to me, my information is necessarily incomplete.

If I were required to show that there are reasonable grounds for serious disciplinary action against Assistant County Manager Sue Padilla, County Counsel John Caldwell, HHS Director Silvia Sierra, and HR Director Deborah Weir, I believe that with power to subpoena documents and witnesses, I could do so.  On some issues, I probably could do so now. I stop short of stating any misconduct as fact because I haven’t had the opportunity to do a full investigation.

Some issues are somewhat out in the open.  An audit by Milton Duran found that Ms. Sierra’s Department routinely approved fraudulent applications for health services, many with false social security numbers.  Several women who worked under her at that time say that when they raised the question of fraud, Ms. Sierra ordered them, sometimes angrily, to approve all the applications.  They were honest (as Sierra had told them to be) with the auditor, when he came around.  Duran’s audit put the total wrongly spent in one year at two or three hundred thousand dollars.  One woman working there said some fraudulent applications were for “amounts in the tens of thousands.”

Mr. Duran and others say that he was driven from the county employ, in part based on misconduct allegations that may have been trumped up.  No one disproved his audit findings.   The young ladies who were honest – and who were assured of protection as “whistle-blowers” – were retaliated against in various ways, including the elimination of their department and improper interference with their efforts to work in other positions within the county.

That just ain’t right.  (Management delayed filling the audit position, then hired a splendid candidate who took a nine-day look at the way things were run and resigned.  Seven months ago.)   Glenn Thomas, currently investigating matters for the County, reportedly responded to an account of these events by expressing shock that Ms. Sierra still holds her position.

More appalling allegations have been made, less publically but quite credibly, against one or more of the four members of management named earlier. (To protect sources, I wont discuss these in detail.)  I can’t say whether these allegations are true; but it would be dereliction of duty for the Commission not to mount a serious investigation.

The interviews conducted by Universal are well-intentioned.  Interviewees tell me that the investigator did his work appropriately, in tone and manner, and assured them that what they said would not go to Mr. Caldwell – but also that he taped interviews and reported to Mr. Caldwell.  While he reported being flooded with calls from employees, other employees did not speak with him, because of their fears he’d tell Mr. Caldwell what they said.  Others gave only the most muted versions of what they’d have liked to say.  Commissioners should factor in this fear and reticence when assessing the final report.

The Commission is in a tough spot.  It’s only employee is Ms. Padilla.  It must work through her.  It gets its legal advice from Mr. Caldwell.  Commissioners are precluded from the kinds of direct inquiry or action citizens might expect from them.

The facts, testimony, and allegations warrant a special counsel,  an independent and able committee or commission, or an appeal to the state audit department.  Such action could also help ameliorate the related morale problem.

I hope and trust that the commissioners will give serious consideration to such action.  (The EEOC complaint filed by Ms. Sierra should neither motivate nor dissuade them.)  Any inquiry should be fair, both to employees and to upper management.  And it should be conducted discreetly but in a way that not only is fair but appears fair to employees and the public.

Meanwhile citizens should make every effort to keep these issues separate in their minds from the upcoming vote on bonds and taxes.   The commission seems to be headed toward doing the right thing on these issues, if a little later than I might have wished.  The alleged misconduct by some highly-placed individuals, whether the allegations prove accurate or inaccurate, has no relationship to whether or not the County needs the items the vote concerns.  Voters should consider each of the ballot choices on its own merits.

Granados has helped the Commissioners recognize the problem.  They must face it.  I believe they will.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 21 June.  If you haven't been following this story, something like ten of my last 12 blog posts concern the County, including a day-by-day account of the Granados trial that ended July 3rd.

      If I seem to have Doña Ana County on the brain recently, sorry; but it's a critical moment for our little county, and an interesting one.

      If I seem to have Doña Ana County on the brain recently, and you've strayed to this blog for nature-writing or photography or some other subject, sorry.
      But it's a critical moment for our little county, and an interesting one.

       Monday the Commission reportedly will receive a draft of the investigation done by Universal Investigations of Albuquerque.  It may not contain as much information as it might have, but I suspect it will contain sufficient information to warrant further action.  Some of the folks who spoke to Mr. Thomas told me about their visits with him.  He said he was receiving great numbers of requests from people to hear their stories or review documents they had.  He visited with one ex-employee at her current place of employment, and (I'm told) walked away shaking his head in amazement over the fact that Silvia Sierra, for example, is still a Director.  He apparently found some of what he was told to be pretty compelling.  He seems to have tried to accomplish his mission successfully, despite very reasonable fears that he'd mostly steer information right to some of the folks he was investigating.

        Tuesday the Commission, following its regular meeting, will meet in closed session "to discuss personnel matters involving the County Manager, the County Attorney, and the Human Resources Director; and threatened or pending litigation involving employment discrimination; and Granados v. DAC."  A lot of employees are holding their breath.]

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