Former state archaeologist claims in suit his firing was retaliatory and based on being 'an older white guy' - Albuquerque Journal

Former state archaeologist claims in suit his firing was retaliatory and based on being ‘an older white guy’

Eric Blinman

New Mexico’s former state archaeologist has filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit alleging he was fired this year in retaliation for reporting to human resources rumors of an “illicit sexual affair” between his boss and a subordinate.

Eric Blinman, who was fired in Feb. 13 as longtime director of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies, also alleges his termination was motivated by age, race and sex discrimination.

Blinman, a 59-year-old white male, had served 17 years as the state’s archaeologist. He was under the supervision of Department of Cultural Affairs Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego, who was appointed in 2019 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, names Garcia y Griego and Lujan Grisham among the defendants. The suit asks for unspecified damages, fees and costs.

Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, called the allegations outlined in an email from the Journal based on the suit “completely false.”

Daniel Zillmann, spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, echoed the Governor’s Office.

“These allegations against Cabinet Secretary Garcia y Griego are both untrue and unfounded,” Zillmann wrote in a statement Friday morning. “I will reiterate what has been stated on multiple occasions and remains relevant: while no reason was required by the statute for dismissal of at-will employees, there was sound and carefully considered reasoning behind the termination of Dr. Blinman.”

The lawsuit’s whistleblower allegations center on a report Blinman made in 2022 to the human resources director at the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Blinman reported a “rumor” that he said was circulating among Cultural Affairs staff members that Garcia y Griego was having a sexual affair with a subordinate, the suit alleges.

“Mr. Blinman believed that the rumor itself had the potential to negatively impact the efficiency” of the department and “was not in keeping with the State’s code of professional conduct,” it said.

Blinman’s attorney, Merit Bennett, said Thursday that Blinman wrongly believed his report would remain confidential.

“We don’t know exactly what happened, but obviously the confidential reporting was disclosed to Garcia y Griego, who has a friendship with the governor,” Bennett said. “So basically they began to retaliate against Dr. Blinman.”

The retaliation included Garcia y Griego’s refusal to provide Blinman with staff members he requested, the suit alleges.

Garcia y Griego “knew that not providing Dr. Blinman with this hiring authority would deprive him with competent employees and necessary tools to enable him to effectively perform his job duties,” the suit said.

In an interview with the Journal published in February, Blinman said the Department of Cultural Affairs had denied his requests to hire a deputy director and another staff member to handle finances.

Blinman said in February he had made an official complaint to the state’s Office of Human Resources, citing a hostile work environment, just weeks before he was fired.

Bennett said the department’s refusal to allow Blinman to hire personnel is an issue in the lawsuit.

“He needed the resources and they basically starve him out,” Bennett said.

The suit also alleges that age, race and sex discrimination played a role in the decision to fire Blinman.

“Basically, they wanted to get him out of there because he was an older white guy,” Bennett said. “That’s the other aspect of this case, that there was a civil rights violation happening at the same time” as the whistleblower violation, he said.

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