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Prison educator’s suit alleges unjustified dismissal

SANTA FE – A whistleblower lawsuit alleges a former Department of Corrections administrator fired the manager of a prison education program after she complained that a change in an inmate testing program for a high school equivalency diploma was a waste of taxpayer money and may have conflicted with the state’s procurement code.

According to the complaint in state District Court, Catherine Johnson raised the issues to former Director of Recidivism Reduction David Huerta at a November 2012 meeting.

Johnson made the 2012 reports in “good faith” and “Mr. Huerta characterized Ms. Johnson’s report of illegal and improper activity as ‘defiant,'” the suit alleges.

In 2003, Johnson became the manager of the Adult Basic Education program at Corrections. According to the suit filed by attorney Kate Ferlic, she was “known statewide for her expertise in ABE.” In the fall of 2012, Huerta was appointed director of the recidivism program and became supervisor of the ABE program.

Shortly after becoming the anti-recidivism director, Huerta “announced a significant change in GED (General Equivalency Diploma) testing within the ABE program,” the suit says

The change “was that Pearson VUE, a for-profit electronic testing company, would be the new vendor to provide GED testing for the ABE program, and that the DOC was immediately beginning a ‘Pearson Vue pilot project.'”

The company that operated the GED testing was sold to Pearson Vue, DOC spokeswoman Alex Tomlin said Thursday. She had not seen and could not comment on the lawsuit.

Pearson Vue is also the vendor of the new PARCC test for public school students, whose results will be used in teacher and school evaluations, and can be used to show students meet competency standards for graduation.

Pearson Vue “would charge more than twice the cost of the GED testing service in place at the time” and since it was instituted “the number of adult inmates taking the GED has significantly decreased,” said the lawsuit.

Huerta has a “personal friendship” with Gov. Susana Martinez’s husband Chuck Franco and they “hunt together,” states the lawsuit.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said in response, “This is an employment dispute…it has nothing to do with the First Gentleman. Referencing him is nothing more than a poor attempt at sensationalizing an employment dispute.”

Huerta began retaliating by accusing Johnson of not telling him she was involved “in the selection process of a contract employee, contrary to his directive,” the suit says, although he “had no reasonable grounds to believe Ms. Johnson had acted contrary to his directive.”

Huerta terminated Johnson around April 3, 2013 “for unethical conduct, insubordination, and failure to cooperate in an investigation” of the hiring matter, the lawsuit states.

Attorney Ferlic said Thursday that Johnson went to arbitration over her dismissal and the arbitrator “ruled for my client that there was no justification to terminate her.”

Huerta resigned from the Corrections Department last summer and it was “not clear” why, department spokeswoman Tomlin said Thursday. Huerta was formerly a deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, according to the Linkedin website. He was employed at Corrections from June 2012 until June 2014, said Tomlin.

“We used the GED through a connection with PED (the Public Education Department),” said Tomlin. The Corrections Department previously had no choice under state law and had to use the company that administered the GED – now owned by Pearson, according to Tomlin. But she said a 2014 law allows opening up the process.

A telephone number for Huerta was unavailable and Tomlin said she did not have a contact number for him.