The last in a string of five whistleblower lawsuits brought against Northern New Mexico College this past decade was settled for $115,000, resulting in what amounts to more than $1 million of payouts stemming from complaints made against the administration of former college president Nancy “Rusty” Barceló.
Current NNMC president Rick Bailey Jr. said he hopes college faculty, students and the community surrounding the Española-based campus can now put years of strife behind them and focus on the future.
“We’re close to finally turning the page, which I’m excited about,” said Bailey, who took over as college president nearly four years ago, inheriting a messy situation. “As I look back on my tenure so far, with each passing month, the college has fewer and fewer of these legacy challenges to deal with, and I love that because it allows me to focus on the health, safety and education of our students.”
The settlement in the case of Annette Rodriguez v. Ricky Serna, et al. was agreed to last November, but only recently became public after a 180-day waiting period in accordance with state statute.
Rodriguez’s lawsuit accused the various defendants of violating her First Amendment right to free speech, failing to comply with the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, depriving her of due process, committing libel, slander and defamation, and assault and battery, among other charges.
An adjunct professor at NNMC at the time, Rodriguez claimed she was retaliated against after questioning financial improprieties and the misuse of federal grant money.
In 2016, a year before she filed the lawsuit, Rodriguez was awarded the New Mexico Foundation of Open Government’s top honor for open government, the Dixon First Amendment Award. She was recognized for using both open meeting and IPRA laws to shine a light on mismanagement at NNMC, which led to the resignation of four of the top five administrators at the college.
Rodriguez is now teaching American Studies at the University of North Carolina. She declined an interview through her attorney, Jason Marks.
Serna, deputy secretary for the state Department of Workforce Solutions who was recently picked by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to temporarily help oversee the Higher Education Department, is one of several current and former members of Barceló’s administration named in the lawsuit. He served as vice president for institutional advancement under Barceló and resigned when she stepped down in December 2015.
Almost all the other defendants have also left the college. Gone are Mario Catao, an assistant basketball coach; Brandi Cordova, a records custodian and Serna’s former assistant; Matthew Martinez, a professor in the Humanities Department, now deputy director of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture; provost Pedro Martinez; Human Resources director Bernie Padilla; provost Anthony Sena; and John Waters, head of security.
Other defendants were Ryan Cordova, the college’s athletic director and basketball coach; Andy Romero, facilities director; Patricia Trujillo, a Humanities faculty member and director of Equity and Diversity; and the NNMC Board of Regents.
As part of the settlement, the college and its administrators admit no guilt and both sides agree to relinquish all claims against the other.
Legacy of lawsuits
Four other former NNMC employees received money from the college and the state’s Risk Management Division after filing whistleblower lawsuits against the college or its Board of Regents.
• Patricia Perea was in charge of the college’s summer bridge program and secretary of the Faculty Senate. Her contract was not renewed after she raised questions with administrators about the use of federal grant money. She settled for $100,000.
• James Biggs, who served as the college’s director of environmental sciences prior to being demoted, received $295,000 in a settlement after filing a lawsuit in 2015 alleging he was denied tenure because he had reported to the state department of Higher Education and the U.S. Department of Education that the college was misusing federal grant funds.
• Angelo Jacques, who served as IT director at the college, settled his 2014 lawsuit for $240,000 after blowing the whistle on top college administration, also claiming misuse of federal funds, as well as wasteful spending, gross mismanagement and retaliation. He alleged the college failed to adequately respond to concerns he raised about the vulnerability of the college’s computer system affecting students’ personal information, including social security and credit card numbers.
• Melissa Velasquez took her case all the way to trial. A jury awarded the former director of the college’s El Rito campus nearly $420,000 in 2017, siding with her claim that she was demoted to coordinator of continuing education after she reported financial abuse.
But the Velasquez case is the last loose thread among the whistleblower lawsuits filed against the Barceló regime, which began in 2010 and ended in 2015. Both sides have appealed the judgment, the defense arguing the whole case should be overturned and Velasquez’s attorney saying she should be entitled to more, to include lost wages and attorneys’ fees.
The Court of Appeals appointed a three-judge panel in January to review the case.
While Barceló came into a difficult situation at NNMC, inheriting a $5.5 million deficit and years of incomplete audits, the college continued to wrestle with issues having to do with financial controls.
Barceló, who could not be reached for this story, was also a central figure of the state Auditor’s Office investigation that found she was away from the college for 40 days in 2015 attending conferences, spent another 45 days on vacation, and used hours adding up to numerous days’ worth of “do not disturb time.”
That same audit also revealed that the finance director had stolen more than $200,000 in cash and checks from the college, though the $135,000 worth of checks were apparently never cashed.
A district judge last week for the second time rejected a plea agreement between the college and the former finance director, Henrietta Trujillo, that would have brought that case to an end. Both sides were willing to let Trujillo pay restitution and spend five years on probation in exchange for a guilty plea on a second-degree felony charge of embezzlement. But Judge Jason Lidyard didn’t think that punishment was harsh enough and rejected the plea. The case is on track for trial in January.
Meanwhile, the college fell behind on years of its own audits and was placed on “heightened cash monitoring” status by the U.S. Department of Education.
Since then, President Bailey has taken steps to right the ship. He said he had to start by regaining trust in the institution.
“I think that Northern has come a long way in terms of rebuilding trust with the state, with the Legislature, with the community, with taxpayers, and it’s reflected in many ways as all these legacy cases are being resolved one by one,” he said, noting that there haven’t been any new lawsuits for several years. “The thing I’m most proud of is the fact that, as a team, as an institution, we have strengthened every possible relationship that we could, and that gives us hope and optimism going forward.”
Bailey says NNMC has moved forward in other areas, too. He mentioned a $1 million contract with Los Alamos National Laboratory that will provide funding to support the training of more than 50 students as radiological control technicians and nuclear-trained operators. There’s also an apprentice program through Newport News Nuclear BWXT Los Alamos, also referred to as N3B. And, last year, local public school districts agreed to form a branch community college district that, coupled with a voter-approved mill levy, will provide a recurring funding stream to pay the cost of operation, maintenance and capital improvements at the El Rito campus. Northern also was the first college in the state to take steps for an online curriculum as a precaution against the coronavirus outbreak. So, even though the pandemic leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the college in the short term, he is optimistic about the future.
“We are the only college in the state not to have raised tuition in the past three years. We have put procedures in place that got our fiscal health in order, and we have increased the quality and service we give to our students, and still remain the most affordable college in all of the Southwest. To me, that is symbolic and signals the rebuilding of trust in our state and community.”