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Clerk’s suspension has cost taxpayers $65,000

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Casandra Fresquez says she’s ready to go back to work.

Until Feb. 15, 2019, Fresquez worked as both city clerk and the human resources director within Las Vegas, New Mexico, city government.

Tonita Gurule-Giron

But in a move that is still playing out in court, Tonita Gurule-Girón – then the mayor, but who resigned from that position last week – placed Fresquez on paid leave.

Fresquez says she was never given a reason for her suspension. In any case, she has been receiving her salary – which comes to $71,000 a year – for 11 months now. That means her paid leave imposed by Gurule-Girón has cost taxpayers about $65,000.

“It’s ridiculous, is what it is,” said Las Vegas City Councilor Barbara Perea-Casey, who with fellow councilor David Romero, filed suit over Fresquez’s being placed on leave. The City Council voted against firing Fresquez last year, but Gurule-Girón kept her on suspension. The suit maintains Gurule-Girón has violated the city charter.

Now, with Gurule-Girón no longer in office, Perea-Casey said Romero is trying to put the issue of having Fresquez resume doing her various jobs in front of the City Council next week.

“I’ve just been sitting and waiting,” Fresquez said on Thursday.

“I’m ready and willing and able to go back to work,” she said. “I’m just waiting for them to let me know.”

Fresquez’s long suspension with pay is a subchapter in long-running turmoil in Las Vegas surrounding Gurule-Girón.

In a criminal case brought by the New Mexico Attorney General’s office after at least a year of investigation, she was indicted in December on charges alleging bribery and kickbacks. Gurule‒Girón is accused of pressuring city employees to give contracts to her boyfriend’s construction company. She has pleaded not guilty to her criminal charges.

After three of the four city councilors scheduled a special council meeting last week to vote to remove Gurule-Girón from office, which would have referred the matter to a state district judge, Gurule‒Girón resigned.

“Those who know me personally know that I am a fighter,” she said in her resignation letter. “However, I believe the citizens of Las Vegas deserve to have city government operate without the distractions that undoubtedly will ensue if I remain in office for the last two months of my term.”

City Clerk Fresquez’s stay-at-home situation is related tangentially to the investigation that led to Gurule-Girón’s indictments.

The lawsuit filed by councilors Perea-Casey and Romero challenging the indefinite suspension of the city clerk says that the mayor “inexplicably” placed Fresquez on paid leave on Feb. 15. Four days later, a special meeting of the City Council was called by Gurule-Girón “for the purpose of terminating” Fesquez’s employment.

Instead, the council voted 3-1 against firing Fresquez. Perea-Casey and Romero, in their suit, argue that council approval was required to fire or suspend Fresquez, who had been city clerk for about 11 years.

But when Fresquez wrote a letter to City Manager Ann Marie Gallegos requesting permission to come back to work after the council vote, Gurule-Girón said Fresquez would “remain on paid administratively leave indefinitely,” according to the lawsuit.

Perea-Casey maintains that Gurule-Girón started to criticize Fresquez over work-related issues only after the city clerk was interviewed by investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office, the agency that recently obtained the indictments against Gurule-Girón.

The then-mayor “wanted to know what they (the investigators) wanted,” said Perea-Casey.

Fresquez said last week she didn’t know if talking to investigators led Gurule-Girón to suspend her with pay, but that she knew of no other reason for the action.

At the meeting where the City Council voted against her firing, she said, “We each stand for something, and I choose to stand for the truth, and always doing the right thing, no matter the cost and in this case it is the question of my removal as city clerk,” according to minutes of the meeting.

Gurule-Girón has denied any fraud or wrongdoing on her part.

Councilor Romero has also requested that Gurule-Girón and others be investigated over handling of absentee ballots during the 2018 city election. Gurule-Girón said last year that, to her knowledge, the city attorney had put those allegations to bed through conversations with the AG’s Office.

A judge recently denied a motion to dismiss the councilor’s lawsuit over Fresquez’s suspension, and the case remains pending.

Gurule-Girón, as expected, is not among the group of candidates who have filed to run for mayor in the Las Vegas March 3 municipal election. The candidates include Perea-Casey and five others. Two City Council seats are also on the ballot.

“I’m hoping I’ll be back,” said Fresquez, who as city clerk would oversee the voting. “I have an election to administer.”

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