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State workers accused of taking leave to vote, then not voting

SANTA FE – The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez has sent letters to more than 200 state employees alleging they took paid leave to vote in November, but never voted.

The workers could face disciplinary action ranging from a reprimand and repaying the state to more serious sanctions, such as suspension, according to the State Personnel Office.

The office did an audit after the Nov. 4 general election to determine whether employees who took the two-hour administrative leave to vote – which they’re entitled to under state law and personnel rules – actually cast a ballot. A State Personnel Office employee worked on the audit nearly full time for more than a month, said Justin Najaka, interim director of the office.

Letters went out this week to 243 employees across 50 agencies in the executive and judicial branches, he said. “We have a responsibility to be accountable to the taxpayers. Employees should be using leave for the purpose it’s intended for,” Najaka said in an interview.

Unions representing state employees said they have begun receiving complaints from workers that they’re being wrongly accused of not voting.

Najaka said the audit found that 42 employees were not registered to vote, while 201 were registered, but didn’t show as voting. About 4,600 workers took leave and voted, according to the personnel office.

Najaka said his office matched the Social Security numbers of employees who took the leave with Social Security numbers from voter databases in the Secretary of State’s Office.

A similar audit conducted after the 2010 general election resulted in 721 letters, 221 of them to workers allegedly not registered to vote. Najaka called this year’s reduced numbers “a significant improvement.”

A copy of a reprimand letter obtained by the Journal said the letter would be put in the employee’s file and two hours of pay deducted from a May 15 paycheck unless the employee responded within 11 days and demonstrated the leave was appropriate. The letter said the employee falsified a time sheet, violated the Governmental Conduct Act, broke a state personnel rule, violated a state code of conduct, and was “dishonest” and “unprofessional.”

Najaka said decisions about discipline would be made case by case.

“Our concern is the state didn’t do a thorough investigation before issuing discipline,” said Donald Alire, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7076. “The way SPO is doing this, you’re guilty before proven innocent,” he said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the voting leave is “an essential tool,” especially for those who don’t live where they work. About 40 percent of AFSCME members who work for the state in Santa Fe live elsewhere, said Communications Director Miles Conway. “We certainly feel very strongly that if you’re going to use the voting leave, you must go vote,” Conway also said.

Conway said the union is getting complaints from employees and has helped them get the proof they need to get the proposed discipline rescinded.