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Was a ‘quid pro quo’ part of Rio Arriba County dispute?

SANTA FE, N.M. — In 2014, Rio Arriba County settled with a high-ranking employee who threatened a whistleblower lawsuit alleging she’d been removed as the county’s human resources director in a “political dispute.”

Commissioner Barney Trujillo

Commissioner Barney Trujillo

That dispute reportedly began with a skirmish over summer jobs for the teenage daughters of County Commissioner Barney Trujillo’s political rivals.

Documents recently obtained by the Journal include an attorney’s letter that also raises the issue of whether there was a “quid pro quo” when Trujillo got a $50,000 marketing contract from Española Public Schools and about two weeks later a school board member was hired for the county HR director position that was held for 10 years by Jessica Madrid.

Madrid had been demoted and transferred to a new, lower-paying job as an administrative assistant at the county jail, leaving the HR position open before Annabelle Almager was hired to fill it.

Annabelle Almager

Annabelle Almager

“The quid pro quo” for Trujillo’s contract with the school district “appears to be the selection of (an) Española School Board member, Annabelle Almager, as the new HR Director for the County,” says attorney Diane Garrity’s Oct. 3, 2014, letter to the county’s attorney on behalf of Madrid.

Almager, who didn’t run for re-election to the school board in the election held earlier this month, still holds the county HR post, with a salary of $56,098, county records show. She was among the school board members who voted to give Trujillo the marketing contract, according to a 2014 report by the Rio Grande Sun, Española’s weekly newspaper.

Rio Arriba County officials acknowledged in a letter that Trujillo was “initially upset” that the daughters of candidates who ran against him for County Commission were being offered summer jobs in 2014.

But the county manager and the county’s attorney have vehemently denied the rest of Madrid’s allegations.

The dispute was settled – essentially by the county agreeing not to cut Madrid’s pay, using an $11,000-a-year supplement to her regular salary at the jail – without going to court.

County Manager Tomas Campos

County Manager Tomas Campos

County leaders maintained in a 2014 letter that Madrid had done a poor job as HR director. In a recent email statement to the Journal, County Manager Tomas Campos said that Madrid’s allegations “are false and were not in any way a basis for settling,” and the only factor was “weighing the expense of litigation versus the expense of fighting the case.”

“Ms. Madrid’s conduct at the time was egregious enough to have terminated her employment …,” said Campos in another email. “This being a small town, I knew she was the only caretaker of her elder father, so I decided to demote and transfer (her) from HR to another position.

“Once I met with her and informed her of this, the accusations and falsehoods raised by her and her attorney began.”

In apparent reference to the suggestion of a “quid pro quo” involving Trujillo’s contract with the school district and school board member Almager getting the HR job at the county, Campos said, “It is also a prime example of the outlandish claims made by Ms. Madrid and her attorney.”

In the November 2014 settlement agreement signed by Campos, Madrid and attorneys, Madrid accepted the transfer to the detention center – but without a pay cut.

A page on the Rio Arriba County website that lists employee salaries indicates that Madrid now is making $23.10 an hour, or $48,048 a year. But because of the settlement, she receives an “addendum” that makes her annual pay actually $59,529, Campos said in an email.

No comment

Efforts to reach Trujillo via telephone and email for this story were unsuccessful. The commissioner likewise did not return numerous messages last spring as the Journal prepared a standard pre-election story on his Democratic primary race against longtime Rep. Nick Salazar, D-Okhay Owingeh. Salazar defeated Trujillo, who is serving in his second term as a county commissioner.

In January, there were two search warrant raids by investigators from the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office involving Trujillo – one at the Española School District’s offices with a warrant listing Trujillo as a target and one at Trujillo’s Chimayó home. The Attorney General’s Office has declined to confirm or deny an investigation.

The AG’s office also has made a records request to the school district for thousands of documents, including 16 categories of records relating to Trujillo or his company, formerly known as 2Smooth Marketing, seeking such items as invoices, purchase orders, work logs and bank statements.

Last year, a public records request by the AG’s Office also sought various records from Rio Arriba County, including documentation of any funds “expended by the County Commission or individual commissioners that are not standard operating expenses” and “County Commissioner Barney Trujillo’s County related activities.”

Almager was reached by telephone this week and was asked for comment, ended the call and didn’t call back. Officials at Española Public Schools also did not respond to Journal inquiries.

‘Implosion,’ cursing alleged

The October 2014 letter from attorney Garrity on behalf of Madrid threatening a whistleblower suit describes an “implosion” by Trujillo on May 28, 2014, when Trujillo called County Manager Campos’ office and the summer jobs program was discussed with Madrid present. This was about five weeks before Madrid was transferred from HR director to the jail.

The letter says Trujillo was so loud over the phone that Campos “had to hold the phone away from his ear” and Trujillo could be heard using sexist obscenities to describe the two girls, who were daughters of candidates who ran against him, and demanding they be fired immediately. Trujillo said he also wanted Madrid fired and used the same obscenities to describe her, the Garrity letter states.

Garrity wrote, “It is clear from the documentation and recordings provided to me that Commissioner Barney Trujillo forced the County Manager’s hand over a political issue with individuals who ran against him for his seat. It is also clear that Commissioner Barney Trujillo was motivated by providing another resident with Ms. Madrid’s position.”

The letter says Madrid told Campos that county commissioners don’t have authority to make hiring and firing decisions, and alleged that background-check rules were being ignored for Trujillo’s chosen participants for the summer youth program. The letter concluded, “If Rio Arriba County does not resolve this matter amicably, all pleadings are public information, and Ms. Madrid’s full story will be told.”

The county challenged Madrid’s allegations, with then-county attorney Ted. J. Trujillo stating in a response that there were “numerous examples of Ms. Madrid’s poor performance, emotional and erratic personality and failure to correct her behavior that both justified her transfer.”

Attorney Trujillo’s letter says Madrid threw temper tantrums and was “prone to emotional meltdowns,” created a “bottleneck” in the HR department, started a “malicious rumor” about Commissioner Trujillo, didn’t keep regular office hours and resisted County Manager Campos’ encouragement that she get a bachelor’s degree. Madrid has an associate degree from Eastern New Mexico University according to her résumé.

The Ted Trujillo letter on behalf of the county acknowledges that Commissioner Trujillo “was initially upset that the daughters of his political rivals were hired.” But “he never sought their dismissals nor did he ever use foul language regarding them or Ms. Madrid,” says the response letter. Both teen applicants were eventually offered jobs, but only one accepted, the letter says.

Efforts to reach Madrid for this story, both at her workplace and her home, were unsuccessful.

Attorney Trujillo also wrote that it was “common knowledge” that commissioners choose summer youth program employees. “In fact, when a former Commissioner chose Ms. Madrid’s two daughters as Summer Program employees for at least four consecutive summers, Ms. Madrid did not seem to mind or feel that this was improper,” says the letter.

Almager, the school board member who replaced Madrid as county HR director, held “a professional position” at Los Alamos National Laboratory and has a bachelor’s degree, attorney Trujillo wrote.

The Rio Grande Sun reported in 2014 that Almager had been a program administrator responsible for hiring contractors at LANL. On the web, on sites like LinkedIn, she had identified herself as a web administrator for the lab.

Garrity responded with a Nov. 7, 2014, letter saying that any complaints about Madrid’s poor job performance as HR director were never documented or brought to Madrid’s attention. “In fact, we have a recording of Mr. Campos declaring the transfer was not related to Ms. Madrid’s job performance, but was ‘political,'” Garrity wrote.

Recorded conversation

The Journal obtained a copy of a recorded phone conversation between Madrid and Campos. The county manager says to the often-sobbing Madrid, “I’m doing my best to save you. This is the best I can do and you got to know that.” He adds, “Danny agreed to save you.” Danny Garcia is one of three county commissioners, but no last name is used on the recording.

Campos tells Madrid, “You’d be protected and nobody would bother you” working at the detention center. The jail position is a “classified” job, with civil service protections. The HR director’s job is a so-called exempt position, where the job holder serves at the pleasure of supervisors.

When Madrid protests that her forced transfer isn’t fair, Campos says, “It’s not fair, Jess. That’s the whole point about being an exempt, it doesn’t matter, Jess. You know that.” When Madrid asks if “Barney and Danny want me gone,” Campos replies that he is “not going to go down that road” in the conversation.

The county and Madrid settled with a document signed on Nov. 18, 2014. In addition to keeping Madrid’s pay at the jail the same as she had received as HR director, the county agreed to pay $3,500 for her legal fees. Both sides agreed to keep the settlement confidential.