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City being sued over alleged retaliation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The former head of Albuquerque’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency has filed a lawsuit against the city, the agency, the Police Oversight Board and 18 others alleging that the board flagrantly violated New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act and then retaliated against her for reporting those violations to the city’s inspector general and others.

Robin Hammer contends she was forced out as head of the agency and that her subsequent attempt to land a job as the city’s inspector general was “effectively torpedoed” by members of the board and several city employees because she blew the whistle on the illegal meetings and tried to hold agency employees accountable.

The “defendants retaliated against her in a massive, coordinated fashion in an effort to drive her out of her job, out of the government and cause her acute and long-lasting damage and harm,” the lawsuit alleges.

The 92-page complaint and 62 pages of exhibits were filed in state District Court in Albuquerque in late April.

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“The city has not officially been served with this complaint,” the City Attorney’s Office said in a written statement. “Once served, we will carefully review the claims and determine appropriate steps.”

Joanne Fine, the current chairwoman of the Police Oversight Board and one of the named defendants, said Wednesday that she had not yet seen the lawsuit.

“There’s a lot to this story, and I’m sure the court will give us an opportunity to put it out there,” she said.

Edward Harness, the current executive director of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency and another defendant in the case, declined to comment, saying he had not yet been served.

Albuquerque attorney Robert Don Lohbeck, who is representing Hammer, said the case is “about and against the individuals at the city who are responsible for policing the police.”

“They utterly failed to do that and instead what they did was they proceeded to violate the law themselves,” he said.

Prior to going to work for the city, Hammer served as senior investigative trial counsel for the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission, the state agency that polices judges. The city hired her in 2012 as the independent review officer running the office that at the time investigated complaints against Albuquerque police officers.

In 2014, the city overhauled its civilian oversight system and created a new Civilian Police Oversight Agency that is governed by the Police Oversight Board. Hammer became acting executive director of the agency.

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Hammer applied for the position of executive director but wasn’t interviewed by the board. She lost her job when the city hired an executive director for the agency. She now works as a prosecutor with the city of Rio Rancho.

Hammer faced criticism in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that the Albuquerque Police Department had a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force. The DOJ said Hammer and her predecessor had “simply been too forgiving of the department’s use of deadly force.” Hammer has disputed that characterization.

The Open Meetings Act is a state law that requires public bodies to conduct meetings in public. The lawsuit alleges that members of the Police Oversight Board repeatedly and knowingly violated the law by conducting public business via email and that they even discussed public business during training sessions at which a quorum was present.

Hammer contends she asked board members to stop violating the law and that she reported what was happening to the inspector general, the city attorney and the city’s chief administrative officer.

She also contends that City Attorney Jessica Hernandez – another defendant in the case – and other city employees were aware that the board was violating the Open Meetings Act, yet they failed to report it to the inspector general, as required by the city’s Inspector General Ordinance.

Among the things Hammer is seeking are compensatory damages for lost wages, lost employment benefits, loss of career and economic opportunity, and humiliation and embarrassment along with attorney fees and court costs and up to $100 day for public records that have been withheld.

The lawsuit states that she is also entitled to two times the amount of back pay with interest for violations of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

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