|Story updated (Wednesday, November 11, 2009, 9:14 a.m.)|
State Puts Top DOT Executive on Leave
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by Colleen Heild
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Sunday, November 08, 2009
Controversy Rolls Off DOT Exec
State Highway Official Had Moonlighting Deal at Firm Part 2 (Monday, Nov. 9, 2009)
By Colleen Heild
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Investigative Reporter
Lawrence Barreras is supervising 150 employees, cutting right-of-way land deals and earning nearly $88,000 a year as a top manager at the state Department of Transportation.
Not bad for a guy who was fired from the state Corrections Department for alleged financial wrongdoing and landed a classified DOT position only after the job description was changed.
In fact, Barreras has led something of a charmed life in the Richardson administration, where his responsibilities continue to grow despite revelations about his outside consulting work, his 15 percent pay raise during a salary freeze, his use of a state car to commute and employee complaints about his management style.
And about that firing?
You won't find any record of it in his state personnel files. That's all been cleaned up so that the files show only that he resigned in good standing.
Welcome to the world of state government and Lawrence Barreras.
Barreras, 47, is the former warden of the New Mexico State Penitentiary whose 15-year career in state corrections ended when he was fired in 1997 for padding his state per diem reports and filing a false insurance claim.
His unsuccessful appeal of the firing through the state court system was well-publicized. But what hasn't been so public is the state's decision to strike a legal settlement with Barreras in the weeks after Richardson took office in 2003.
A check of his personnel files at Corrections and the DOT show no mention of any firing. Instead, there is a one-page letter dated November 2004 from a corrections official who wrote that Barreras resigned and left in good standing.
Since joining the DOT in 2006, Barreras has made a name for himself.
He oversees property asset management and right-of-way sections, meeting with public officials, the state Transportation Commission and heading up behind-the-scenes negotiations to buy and sell public property for the agency.
He's been involved in some of the agency's most sensitive and controversial issues: redevelopment of DOT's main headquarters and its District 5 offices in Santa Fe; House Speaker Ben Lujan's commercial billboard south of Española; and ongoing negotiations with Pojoaque Pueblo to buy land for an interchange near Lujan's land off U.S. 84/285.
This summer, Barreras assumed a new title, director of divisions, after the DOT expanded his authority to include transit and rail, planning and traffic safety operations.
Barreras wouldn't agree to a Journal interview, instead opting to provide written answers to questions via e-mail.
He said he had been "cleared" of the allegations that led to his firing.
"My character and reputation are very important to me," Barreras wrote in one e-mail. "I am a native New Mexican with approximately 20 years of employment with the state of New Mexico and intend to be a contributing citizen long after."
Barreras contended in court records that his firing in March 1997 was political. A top Corrections supervisor used different words — including dishonesty, crime and unfit for continued employment — in his termination letter to Barreras.
Barreras said in court documents that he was "involuntarily" transferred as warden of the State Penitentiary to the minimum-security Roswell Correctional Center after Republican Gov. Gary Johnson took office in 1995.
Two years later, he was fired, in part for allegedly making false statements on time sheets and drawing too much in state per diem payments, according to records filed in his civil lawsuit against the state.
Barreras submitted travel expenses for per diem that falsely said he was away from his duty station on department-related business for more than three days in October 1996, wrote then-adult prisons chief John Shanks in a letter filed as an exhibit in Barreras' 1998 lawsuit against the state.
"You were not entitled to all of this per diem," Shanks wrote. He added that "this appears to have constituted the crime of making a false public voucher" and noted that Barreras also signed a time sheet reflecting hours he did not work. Shanks said both appeared to be fourth-degree felonies.
In addition, Shanks alleged Barreras had instructed a subordinate to file a false insurance claim "with the intent that those proceeds would be diverted to cover the entire cost of a replacement computer for your office."
The subordinate, Associate Warden Paul Haberling, was also fired.
"Your actions violated the law and the Code of Ethics, adversely affected the Department's financial interests and demonstrated a level of dishonesty and disregard for proper procedures in handling public funds which renders you unfit for continued employment with the Department," Shanks wrote.
Shanks also wrote that Barreras had previously been apprised of "performance deficiencies" regarding his management practices.
Both the District Attorney's Office in Chaves County and the state Attorney General's Office declined to prosecute.
Barreras and Haberling appealed to the state Personnel Board but withdrew their appeals just days before a hearing, court records state. Barreras said he didn't have confidence in the impartiality of the process.
He and Haberling sued Corrections in state District Court in Valencia County, where the case was dismissed on various grounds, including failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The court did not hear the case on its merits.
In late 2002, as Democrat Bill Richardson was poised to become governor, the state Court of Appeals ruled against Barreras and Haberling.
Meanwhile, Richardson had appointed Barreras to his transition team for corrections, prompting Johnson administration officials to balk at giving him information because of his lawsuit, according to news reports at the time.
In the final days of 2002, Barreras and Haberling appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Three weeks later, with the request for Supreme Court review still pending, the state agreed to settle with Barreras only.
A motion filed with the Supreme Court states Barreras had reached "an amicable resolution of all matters in dispute."
The next day, the court denied Haberling's petition to review his case.
There's no record of the details of the settlement in the court files or Barreras' personnel files at the DOT or Corrections.
"My recollection was he ultimately was allowed to submit a resignation, but I don't remember what the trade-off was," said Albuquerque lawyer Timothy Hale, who defended the state in the lawsuit.
The same month of the settlement, Barreras was appointed to head the Juvenile Justice Division of the state Children, Youth and Families Department, according to his résumé.
He later hired as his top assistant E. Justin Pennington, the lawyer who had represented him against the state in his appeal of his firing.
Within 10 months, both men had left CYFD and state government.
A year later, on Nov. 29, 2004, a two-paragraph letter written by Elmer Bustos, then-head of adult prisons for the state, said Barreras had resigned in good standing. The document referred questions to Corrections Secretary Joe Williams.
Asked recently about the letter, Williams said through a spokeswoman, "At the advice of counsel, the letter was written by Elmer Bustos to resolve all current and potential litigation."
Barreras told the Journal it was "inappropriate" to bring up the old allegations.
"The current file is the official record," he added.
A Richardson spokesman didn't respond to a question last week as to whether Richardson's office was involved in the decision to settle the case.
Former Corrections Chief Rob Perry, who was a defendant in Barreras' lawsuit, said he wouldn't have agreed to allow Barreras to resign.
"The first reason was there was factual record replete with evidence to support the charges. The second reason is that he never presented any evidence in mitigation or exoneration. And No. 3, he had already been through the court process."
As for the settlement, Perry said, "It sounds like shenanigans to me."
Barreras received a $13,100-a-year temporary raise last January amid a salary freeze enacted by Richardson because of the state's dire financial straights.
The justification for the temporary $101,117 annual salary was that a deputy secretary had resigned and Barreras had been assigned additional responsibilities. According to one DOT document, the one-year increase was to expire Jan. 10, 2010.
On July 23, the Journal filed a public records request about Barreras' salary and any pay raises. Six days later, on July 29, DOT management rescinded the raise.
The DOT paperwork listed no justification for his salary reduction, but Barreras told the Journal the temporary increase was removed "once the (deputy secretary) position was filled."
DOT records show that position was filled by Max Valerio four months earlier.
Department spokesman Mark Slimp said the salary bump was approved by the State Personnel Office and didn't violate the governor's salary freeze because that applied only to permanent salaries.
During the past year, Barreras has been among the handful of top DOT managers who had a state vehicle to commute from his Albuquerque home to Santa Fe.
But he wasn't on the DOT list of employees allowed the take-home privileges.
DOT policy states employees authorized to commute are supposed to be charged $3 a day against their gross income.
After the Journal inquired in September about who was on the list, the DOT retroactively put Barreras on the list for a take-home car, saying he had "inadvertently" been left off.
A DOT spokesman later said Barreras had failed to complete the required paperwork. The agency wouldn't say whether he had been disciplined as a result.
On Sept. 22, the DOT approved Barreras to commute with a state vehicle until at least next June, but he told the Journal that, effective Oct. 27, the agency has banned all such take-home cars due to budget constraints.
Engineer not needed
When he joined the DOT in 2006, Barreras was hired as a "temporary" employee, and records show that status was extended until a permanent classified position — with more job security — was advertised in the summer 2007.
The job of property asset manager was originally advertised as an "engineer" position, and Barreras and another employee who was a licensed engineer applied, according to DOT records.
The next month, the DOT re-advertised the job, eliminating the word "engineer."
Barreras, who is not an engineer, was hired over seven other applicants.
Former DOT Secretary Rhonda Faught recalled that a new deputy secretary had been appointed and "didn't necessarily feel like it needed to be an engineer."
Records show the education required for the job was a bachelor's degree in business administration or an equivalent degree, or "demonstrated practical experience."
Also required was seven years' experience in property or asset management, or management in the areas of engineering, right-of-way mapping or other real property appraisal and acquisition. Management experience was also a must.
Barreras fell short at least on the technical expertise.
A DOT document that gave the rationale for his hiring stated: "Mr. Barreras brings in high-quality and relevant experience to the job." It mentioned his "extensive managerial experience with diverse work force," adding, "Mr. Barreras needs little or no training for this position."
Barreras denied reports that employee complaints about him had prompted the recent presence of State Personnel Office Deputy Director Reese Fullerton at the DOT right-of-way office in Santa Fe.
Fullerton, who specializes in training and mediation, wouldn't say why he was working at the DOT.
"That's an internal matter," he told the Journal.
Barreras said he and DOT management asked Fullerton to engage in "team building," and Fullerton planned other such work elsewhere in the agency.
Barreras said he knew of only one grievance filed and said it concerned a "management team decision and not directed solely at me."
Faught, who retired from the DOT last December, said she received complaints about Barreras before she left.
She added: "I know the people in right of way were not happy with Lawrence."