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PRC debate: Sunshine or tabloid journalism?

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A little sunshine can cause a ruckus at the state Public Regulation Commission.

Last week, I reported the PRC paid $25,000 in court-ordered sanctions because it withheld evidence of its investigation into a former agency employee who had reported fellow workers were searching X-rated and other questionable websites on government computers.

The widow of a retired PRC insurance fraud investigator found the evidence – 176 pages of documents – locked in a horse trailer after her husband’s death in August 2013.

Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, upset that PRC staff didn’t brief commissioners on the $25,000 sanctions payment in June, raised the issue at a commission meeting Wednesday morning.

ESPINOZA: "We don't know how our money's spent"

ESPINOZA: “We don’t know how our money’s spent”

K. MONTOYA: "I think we all need to calm down"

K. MONTOYA: “I think we all need to calm down”

The result: Commissioners bickered with commissioners. Commissioners clashed with staff.

“We don’t know how our money’s spent,” Espinoza said. “How many more surprises will we read about in the newspaper?”

“This is bad press,” Commissioner Pat Lyons said. “We don’t need to elaborate on bad press. … They just pick on the PRC. They go after us, and you (Espinoza) fall right into their trap and now you bring it up again.”

Espinoza replied, “I’m proud to fall into that trap of accountability and transparency.”

LYONS: "We don't need to elaborate on bad press (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

LYONS: “We don’t need to elaborate on bad press (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

HALL: "I just hate to read it in the newspaper"

HALL: “I just hate to read it in the newspaper”

Commissioner Ben Hall said, “I don’t have a problem with us having to pay what a judge orders. I just hate to read it in the newspaper. … I don’t know how a newspaper gets it before commissioners are even aware of the fact.”

Commissioner Karen Montoya supported the decision by PRC chief of staff Vincent Martinez not to brief commissioners about the payment.

“It’s not like he knew that the media was just going to pick up on this case and come and write an article about it,” she said. “… Had the media not picked up on this case, this would never be an issue right now. … I think we all need to calm down.”

Former PRC computer worker Maurice Bonal Jr. sued the agency in 2011, alleging he was fired the previous year for telling supervisors about inappropriate searches of porn and other websites.

A state District Court jury in March found Bonal was retaliated against in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act and awarded him $110,000 in damages for emotional distress.

At the PRC meeting Wednesday, Patrick Lopez, a staff attorney for the commission, said Espinoza had attended some of the Bonal trial and sat with his supporters.

Commission Chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar later told Lopez to keep his comments to himself. She had earlier warned him to sit down.

As for Martinez, who was named the commission’s chief of staff last September, he called the Journal “a tabloid paper” and said he inherited the Bonal “mess.”

“The bill for the (sanctions) came to me. I paid the bill. I felt it was a routine matter,” Martinez said. Nevertheless, he agreed commissioners should have been notified of the payment.

The documents found in the horse trailer related to an investigation of Bonal that the PRC’s Insurance Fraud Bureau began the day after he reported the improper computer use by other employees.

Ben Montoya, who headed the bureau at the time but has since retired from the PRC, was among those accused of accessing inappropriate websites. The documents in the horse trailer included a Post-it note signed by Montoya that read, “Please keep somewhere safe.”

State District Judge Raymond Ortiz found in February that PRC staff – in particular Montoya – had withheld the documents.

Montoya has denied improperly searching websites. He couldn’t be reached for comment on the sanctions payment.

The bad news for taxpayers is that the cost of the Bonal case is certain to rise significantly. A judge will decide how much to award him in pay-related damages and attorney fees and costs.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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