Journal Story Disputed

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An attorney for Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston called a news conference Thursday to criticize a Journal story she said misrepresented the sheriff’s response to a lawsuit involving a former employee.

Attorney Jonlyn Martinez told reporters she wanted to “clarify some of the misstatements in the Journal article that was published” earlier that day.

“Specifically, the sheriff never told any employee that they were an overweight slob or a fat slob,” Martinez said. “In addition, the sheriff never told Jennifer Vega-Brown (the former employee) that she was a whore, nor did he refer to anyone else in that manner at any time.”

Martinez also said the article inaccurately said Vega-Brown was fired because of her “job performance” and misstated her termination date.

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Journal managing editor Karen Moses said Journal reporter Jeff Proctor recorded his interview with the sheriff, and the story accurately reflects the interview.

She also pointed out that — in contrast to Martinez’s comments — the story never reported that Houston “told an employee” she was a slob, just that he referred to her as one. And the story did not report that Houston called anyone a “whore,” but that he was repeating an allegation made by someone else.

The Journal article centered on a lawsuit by Vega-Brown, who worked for Houston as a legal adviser and spokeswoman. Proctor reported that Houston denied some of the negative comments attributed to him in the lawsuit but acknowledged others.

The recording of Proctor’s interview with the sheriff and Martinez for the Thursday story shows:

—  When asked about an allegation that he called a Hispanic woman in the department a “fat slob,” Houston said in the interview that: “I did, in a private conversation with my executive assistant, come in and at one point advise her that an employee behind the front desk did look like a fat slob. … I did make that statement. … I concede that it was inappropriate. I should’ve just said that she looked unprofessional.”

—  Thursday’s Journal article said Houston had acknowledged that he referred to Vega-Brown and another BCSO civilian employee as “a couple of whores,” but that he said he was just “repeating an allegation made by a third party” during a meeting he considered protected by attorneyclient privilege.

The recorded interview shows Martinez saying the “sheriff was just referring to a comment made by a third party about (Vega-Brown’s) behavior. He wasn’t making that comment. He said: ‘This is some of the information I’ve heard about what you’ve been up to,’ because that had been reported to him. He wasn’t making that comment to her directly.”

Also, during the interview, Houston said: “I absolutely made inference to that being alleged by a third party … There was a particular third party that made an allegation that they were acting like a you-know-what … It was done by a third party, and all I was doing was relaying that information … I’ve never personally said that myself — or made that allegation.”

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— Martinez said in the news conference that Vega-Brown was ter m i nated “solely because of budget issues.”

The explanation given in Wednesday’s interview was more complex. In the interview, Martinez said the termination letter to Vega-Brown “states that she’s not performing the functions set forth in her job description, the sheriff’s paying her salary out of his budget, yet he’s forced to use outside legal counsel and someone else to perform the duties she was hired to perform. That’s why she was let go.

“But there was a lot of reasons why: She wasn’t doing a good job for the Sheriff’s Department … She was let go for economic reasons. We didn’t give her a letter of termination setting forth all the deficiencies she had here within the department because we don’t have to. She’s an at-will employee. She was not performing the functions she was hired to perform.”

— Martinez said in the news conference that the Journal incorrectly reported that Vega-Brown had been terminated on Monday. That’s the date listed in the lawsuit.

Martinez said Vega-Brown was actually notified last week that her employment would end today

— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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