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Past city official files whistleblower suit

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A former official in the city of Albuquerque’s Human Resources Department is alleging that Mayor Tim Keller’s administration manipulated the city’s hiring and personnel processes — often using her to do its bidding — and then fired her for raising concerns.

Patricia Martinez says in a new whistleblower lawsuit that she was repeatedly directed to hire preselected people, fabricate reasons for reassigning others and give preferential treatment to “millennial” job candidates, and “friends and allies” of Keller and his executive team. She claims she was fired as deputy HR director for reporting concerns to various parties in city government, including the Office of Inspector General and the city attorney.

Her suit, filed Sunday in state District Court in Albuquerque, names the city and Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta in his professional and individual capacities. Bhakta oversees Human Resources.

The city government culture, the suit says, is “driven by a mayoral administration with an agenda of quid pro quo practices, cronyism, racism, defiance of the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act and a general spirit of flouting established City of Albuquerque rules and regulations and best practices” for managing employees.

Keller’s administration says the city had valid reasons to terminate Martinez.

“This is a meritless suit, filed by an ex-employee fired for poor performance and hostility towards her subordinates — arguments we are eager to make in court. As always, unclassified employees may be terminated from city government for any lawful reason,” an administration spokesman said in a written statement to the Journal.

According to the suit, members of Keller’s “executive team” told Martinez that the mayor and others on his team wanted to replace the director and employment manager who were working in the HR Department at the time. They told Martinez — who started as Albuquerque’s deputy HR director in October 2018 after holding a similar job at the city of Rio Rancho — that she was the department’s “de facto director,” which she interpreted to mean that she would get the top job if she followed their directions.

Specific allegations in Martinez’s suit include:

■ Members of the mayor’s executive team directed her to hire a specific person as HR investigator, with Bhakta instructing her to score that candidate the highest for the position, even if a current city employee scored better.

■ Bhakta directed Martinez to personally check on an applicant and find him a job in HR because Bhakta knew his mother.

■ Keller’s project manager and the city’s planning director told Martinez “that Mayor Keller wanted to restructure the Planning Department in an effort to remove two (specific) employees,” which she told them was improper without disciplinary cause.

■ A senior personnel officer from Municipal Development asked Martinez to lower a division manager’s salary “to assist him in double dipping on external retirement benefits,” and that Bhakta had already made that request once previously, a request Martinez denied.

■ Bhakta said that “ ‘black (people) and Hispanics are dumb’ or words to that effect.”

■ Bhakta and city attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr. on separate occasions gave Martinez directions meant to subvert the state’s public records law, with Bhakta telling her not to put certain information in email and Aguilar asking for documents to be hand-delivered.

■ Bhakta told Martinez to transfer the Albuquerque Police Department’s HR coordinator to the Aviation Department, “despite the fact (Aviation) was already staffed with three other HR administrators.” That shuffling created a spot at APD that officials could use to reassign someone they wanted removed from central HR.

Before the APD staffing change, the suit says, Bhakta told Martinez that high-ranking APD officials wanted to fire the department’s HR coordinator.

“Bhakta further asserted to Ms. Martinez that because (the coordinator) was African American, the Executive team could not fire her because they did not want any problems with the ‘Black’ community as Mayor Keller was receiving pressure from the African American community due to his limited hiring of African Americans,” the suit says.

The employee who moved from central HR to APD received a “substantial” pay raise, according to the complaint. When Martinez raised concerns with Bhakta about the transfer and raise, “he stated he wanted to give her less but Lawrence Rael, the city’s Chief Operating Officers (sic), was a friend of (the employee) and her husband and persuaded Defendant Bhakta to increase his proposed offer to her otherwise she would not accept it and would stay in Human Resources,” the suit says.

Martinez detailed various concerns about Bhakta to Aguilar and others in the City Attorney’s Office, and also told an investigator with the city’s Office of Inspector General — which was investigating hiring practices inside the Planning Department — that the city’s executive leadership was not following established HR processes, according to her suit.

Bhakta fired her Jan. 31, 2020, in front of other employees, which her suit alleges was retaliation for her reporting since she had never been told that she was not meeting expectations.

“The second it became clear she wasn’t a team player with the executive team, she was on the outside,” her attorney Thomas Grover said in an interview. “When she actually dared to provide criticism to a third party about this stuff it was, ‘Get rid of Patricia.’ ”

Grover said Martinez was recruited from Rio Rancho with “sterling” recommendations and there were no records during her tenure with the city of Albuquerque documenting poor performance.

Martinez’s suit is asking the court to award attorney’s fees; lost past and future wages and employment benefits; and other damages, including for emotional distress and loss of professional reputation.

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