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County to pay $570K in whistleblower/IPRA cases

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston

Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston

Bernalillo County attorneys have agreed to pay more than half a million dollars to a former Sheriff’s Office employee who sued the county and Sheriff Dan Houston in October 2012, alleging she was mistreated after raising concerns about alleged discrimination against Hispanic women in the Sheriff’s Office.

Jennifer Vega-Brown will receive $570,000 under a settlement of two lawsuits reached last week, said county attorney Randy Autio. He said the county admits no liability.

Vega-Brown’s first lawsuit claimed violations of the state Whistleblower Protection Act, defamation of character, retaliatory discharge and breach of contract. The second came when the county did not release what Vega-Brown’s attorneys said were public documents.

Sheriff Houston said in a statement that the settlement was made “without consultation with me, and over my objections.” Houston said he was never a party in the public records lawsuit and that Vega-Brown agreed as part of the settlement to “dismiss me from the lawsuit she brought against me.”

A judge in November 2013 ordered the county to pay almost $140,000 for failing to quickly provide the public records under the state Inspection of Public Records Act. That figure continued to rise as the office continued to fail to produce the documents.

In October 2012, Vega-Brown said it was “hell” working as the attorney and spokeswoman for Houston and filed the lawsuit. Vega-Brown received word the week before filing the suit that she was going to be fired after a year and a half with the county, according to the lawsuit.

The settlement agreement will be made public this week or next, Autio said.

Houston also said the initial discrimination claims that were filed by Vega-Brown’s co-workers to the New Mexico Human Rights Division were dismissed because they lacked probable cause.

An attorney for Vega-Brown did not return calls for comment Tuesday afternoon about whether Houston is correct that the complaints were dismissed.

Her lawsuit alleged the sheriff and then-undersheriff Ron Paiz launched a “bogus” Internal Affairs investigation against her and took other retaliatory steps after she supported another woman’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint alleging similar treatment of Hispanic women at BCSO.

She was stripped first of her spokeswoman duties with no notice, according to the suit, then ordered by Houston to cease all legal work for BCSO. Vega-Brown was moved out of BCSO headquarters and into the County Attorney’s Office and given “meaningless assignments” until she was fired, according to the suit.

Houston, in an interview at the time, said he fired Vega-Brown for poor job performance and denied some of the derogatory comments attributed to him in the lawsuit.

However, he acknowledged that he referred to Vega-Brown and another BCSO civilian employee as “a couple of whores,” but said he was just “repeating an allegation made by a third party” during a meeting he considered to be protected by attorney-client privilege.

The sheriff also acknowledged two other derogatory comments, including referring to a Hispanic woman in the department as a “fat slob” and expressing doubt that a woman who accused ex-Bernalillo County Commissioner Michael Wiener of sexual harassment could have “that kind of comment being made towards her.”

The sheriff said he “may have” made the comment about the woman Wiener was accused of harassing.

“Not in a derogatory manner, but in a way of – I don’t see her in the light of … I just didn’t see him making a statement in regards to that employee,” Houston told the Journal in October 2012 . “I guess … I’ve met her, she’s very nice, she dresses conservatively – I just don’t, I just don’t see that kind of comment being made towards her. That would just be my opinion.”

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