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Top UNM official red-faced over Lujan Grisham comments

By Martin Salazar
Journal Staff Writer
      Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal

    Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration approached the University of New Mexico about hiring controversial Health Secretary Michelle Lujan Grisham just before she left her cabinet post, according to a tape recording made before the start of a regents meeting.
    “The governor, James called me last night ... to hire Michelle Grisham. He fired her,” then-acting university President David Harris could be heard saying on the tape prepared by UNM officials and included in the official record.
    While Grisham says she did explore possibilities at UNM, she strenuously disputes the notion that she was fired. “That would be incorrect on his part,” she said. “I’m the lucky recipient, it seems, of odd conversations.”
    Harris concedes the point.
    “I misspoke when I speculated that Michelle Grisham was terminated from her position,” Harris said in an interview last week. “I’ve been informed that she left her position voluntarily and in good standing. And I regret that I misspoke, and I stand corrected. Also, I’ve apologized to Michelle personally.”
    Harris, who said he didn’t realize his comments were being recorded, also told the Journal it wasn’t the governor who called him.
    “The governor would never deign to call anybody for something that insignificant. There’s no way,” Harris said. “He would never call me on something like that. He has people to carry messages.”
    Harris on the tape refers to “James,” and the governor’s chief of staff is James Jimenez.
    The recording captured portions of multiple conversations before the meeting was convened, and only snippets of Harris’ conversation are discernible. It was made on May 8, 2007 — six days before Richardson announced that Grisham was leaving her cabinet post.
    Jobs at UNM
    UNM has become home to other former high-level Richardson staffers, but Grisham isn’t one of them.
    While she gave her resume to both Harris and Paul Roth, UNM’s executive vice president for health sciences, Grisham wasn’t hired.
    “I think it dispels the notion of cronyism at UNM,” Harris said in an interview.
    Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos reiterated what the administration said last year: Grisham “left on her own accord.”
    Grisham on Friday released a two-page letter of recommendation from Richardson dated March 3, in which the governor highlighted her work for his administration.
    She also said she wasn’t asked to resign but left to explore a run for Congress. She ended up seeking the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional District seat, but lost to former Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich.
    Contacted about the recording on Wednesday, Harris initially said he didn’t recall the conversation and that a staff member didn’t think it was him. Thursday morning, Harris said he had listened to the tape and, “It’s 100 percent definitely me.”
    Harris said he was speaking to regents’ President Jamie Koch, though Koch said he doesn’t recall the conversation. And Harris said that while he got a call from Jimenez about Grisham, at no point was he ever contacted by the governor to hire her.
    Asked whether Richardson had called anyone at UNM to ask them to find a job for Grisham, Gallegos said, “I don’t believe the governor called anyone at UNM about Michelle. He did write a letter of recommendation on her behalf, kind of a general letter to anyone. Whether she took that to UNM or not, I don’t know.”
    Harris said Jimenez called him “and indicated that Michelle was going to be leaving the administration in good standing, in fact had a letter of recommendation from the governor, and would there be an opportunity for her here.”
    Gallegos said Jimenez had no comment.
    Harris said he met with Grisham and told her he didn’t think he had anything that was a good fit, but referred her to Roth. Roth said he, too, told Grisham he didn’t know of any open positions at a top executive level for her.
    “Looking all the time”
    Grisham, an attorney, said she’s interested in UNM’s senior clinic and geriatric programs.
    “I am someone who is looking all the time for the right options or opportunities, but I didn’t do anything about it, and I’m not going to do anything about it,” she said.
    Grisham said Friday she didn’t recall whether she asked Jimenez to call UNM.
    Her nearly three-year stint as health secretary was marked at times by controversy. Critics accused her of micromanaging and of running off talented staff members who questioned her. She and her supporters countered that she had high expectations and no tolerance for employees who did not want to work hard.
    Grisham left her post as health secretary without having a job to go to, and Harris said he jumped to conclusions.
    “I think it was widely reported in the paper about the public health physicians wanting her to be removed,” Harris said. “James never told me that they were firing her. He told me that, in fact, they were recommending her for further employment, but I think that’s where I took off about perhaps a management problem (that) would ensue because of the fact that that’s what those doctors were all saying.”
    Harris said he made the assumption about Grisham’s departure because of the negative publicity she received after key Health Department employees left.
    In the tape, Harris refers to Grisham as “unmanageable” and a “loose cannon.” Harris said he and Grisham are friends, and he was only referring to the controversy at the Health Department.
    “I just thought that given her recent history with those doctors, that she was becoming a little controversial,” Harris said. “It caused me a little bit of concern, and I would never recommend anyone for employment here if I didn’t think it was right for the university.”
    Harris said that during the taped conversation, he asked Koch whether any deals had been made regarding Grisham.
    “And I think what wasn’t on the tape was that I said, ‘You know, I don’t think that’s a good way to inaugurate a new president.’ ”
    The recorded conversation took place less than a month before David Schmidly officially took over as UNM president.
    Cronyism alleged
    Harris was recently the subject of a UNM investigation into allegations of cronyism and misconduct in the hiring, promotion or granting of pay raises to 21 employees. The investigation, conducted by a UNM attorney, found no significant problems.
    Since Richardson became governor in 2003, some of his staffers have gone to work for UNM. Among them:
    Harris, who had previously worked as Richardson’s deputy chief of staff, was hired by former UNM president Louis Caldera and regents in 2004. After Caldera stepped down, Harris served a stint as interim UNM president. He now is chief financial and chief operating officer.
    Billy Sparks, another former deputy chief of staff for Richardson, was hired as executive director of communications and marketing at UNM’s Health Sciences Center in 2006.
    Connie Beimer, another Richardson staffer, was initially hired as chief of staff to Caldera.