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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
There’s been a lot of turmoil in Española over money that went missing from a city vault earlier this year.
A city manager was hired, then quickly fired amid a state Attorney General’s Office investigation into the missing cash.
And a former billing supervisor has filed a whistleblower protection lawsuit against Española city government and former City Manager David Valdez, who was hired in April and fired in July, for retaliation she says she was subjected to after she reported the theft to the Española Police Department.
The lawsuit effectively names Valdez as the prime suspect in the April 12 theft. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office won’t say much, other than confirming that the investigation is “highly active.”
Former Española Utilities Department billing supervisor Nadine Trujillo filed a whistleblower protection lawsuit against Española city government and Valdez in Santa Fe District Court earlier this month for retaliation that ultimately resulted in her resignation.
She claims she was the initial suspect in the theft of $18,000 that disappeared from a utility department vault at city hall on April 12. Trujillo reported the theft to a supervisor that day, and gave statements to EPD on April 27 and May 10, according to the suit. But she became a target for Valdez and police, she claims.
“Defendants’ retaliation consisted not only of Valdez intimidating and harassing Ms. Trujillo with respect to her City employment, but also grew to include coercive tactics from EPD officers (including, but not limited to, the officers telling Ms. Trujillo she was the ‘only suspect’), all of which culminated in Ms. Trujillo’s constructive discharge from her employment with Española on May 31, 2019, for which she now sues,” the lawsuit states.
The Attorney General’s Office took over the investigation June 14, the suit states.
“The Office of the Attorney General received and accepted a criminal referral from the Española Police Department, and the investigation into this matter is highly active,” Attorney General’s Office spokesman Matt Baca said in an email. He didn’t provide any other details about the case.
Valdez was fired in July amid the criminal investigation. The suit also says Valdez is under investigation in Colorado for “account irregularities” that led to his resignation as Colorado City District Manager last August. No one at the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office returned several Journal phone calls last week.
On April 12, the lawsuit says, Valdez entered the utility department, and asked Trujillo and department cashier Anna Hall where the security cameras were. Security footage shows that Valdez entered the utility department at least seven times that day, the suit says.
At 12:49 p.m., “Valdez entered the Department office with Hall and then left alone about four minutes later, swinging what appears to be a small computer bag or briefcase at his side, which he had carried in under his arm earlier in the day,” the suit says.
During those four minutes, security footage shows reflections in the glass partition between the office and the city hall lobby where Valdez is pacing several times in front of the office, and Hall is seated at the front desk facing the lobby.
Valdez then disappears toward the back and can be seen shortly after on the hallway camera poking his head out the door to look down the hallway for a split second, the suit says. About a minute later, a customer enters the lobby and appears to deposit a check with Hall, who faces toward the customer in the lobby for the whole interaction. About a minute and a half into Hall’s interaction, Valdez is seen leaving with the bag.
Shortly after, Trujillo discovered about $18,000 missing from the vault. She, along with Public Works Department Director Steven Trujillo and Grants Manager Diahann Jacquez, began looking for the money, but were unsuccessful.
At about 4:30 p.m. that same day, Valdez told all the employees in the Billing Department to go home for the day, “without anyone being searched or questioned,” the suit says.
“He said it was a ‘long week’ and everyone ‘deserved’ to go home early,” the lawsuit states. “Valdez told the group not to speak of the matter.”
The suit says the security footage “clearly showed that the prime suspect was City Manager Valdez.”
The lawsuit also says EPD didn’t start investigating the missing money until two weeks after it was allegedly taken, but police made Trujillo the prime suspect. The Attorney General’s Office then took over the case in June.
EPD spokesman Jeremy Apodaca couldn’t explain why the department took two weeks before investigating or why it took two months for the Attorney General’s Office to be given the investigation.
“Being that we turned the case over to the AG’s office and out of respect to them and their investigation, we have no comment at this time,” Apodaca said in a text message.
Trujillo claims she was put on administrative leave by Valdez on May 7, and was given a notice of contemplated disciplinary action on May 20. She submitted her resignation on May 31.
Trujillo attached her resignation to the lawsuit, but did not attach her notice of contemplated action. “Because of the hostile work environment created by City Manager, David Valdez, I feel I am being forced into these actions in order to keep my name intact,” Trujillo wrote.
Trujillo submitted results from a polygraph test along with her resignation that she claims proves she didn’t take the money. “You will observe that I passed with flying colors,” she wrote.
Trujillo’s attorney, Trent Howell, didn’t make his client available for comment. “We’re not giving any statements right now,” Howell said. “We’re just working on the lawsuit.”
Española Mayor Javier Sanchez told the Journal that background checks are done for high-level positions in city government, but that no red flags were found for Valdez.
Valdez could not be reached. Court documents indicate that he has not been served with the lawsuit yet.