Friday, June 8, 2007
Camera Captures Judge's Comment
By Trip Jennings
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE Chris Berkheimer's job as a judge at the New Mexico Workers Compensation Administration didn't last long before hitting a Candid Camera moment.
On May 11, six days after becoming a judge, Berkheimer was put on paid administrative leave from his $93,400-a-year position for making what an injured worker viewed as an inappropriate sexual proposal to her following a workers comp conference in which Berkheimer was the mediator.
The conference was held in Roswell in early April, said Justin Pennington, the Albuquerque attorney representing the female worker.
But it was also set up as a videoconference to benefit participants in Albuquerque.
Berkheimer's job was to mediate between the woman who had filed an injury claim, the employer and the insurance company that was processing it, said agency spokesman Van Cravens.
After the conference adjourned, Berkheimer and the worker were left alone in the room, Pennington said.
"That's when he made his comment," Pennington said. "I can tell you that Mr. Berkheimer wasn't aware his actions were being observed."
He had failed to turn off the visual and audio equipment used to set up the videoconference, Pennington said.
"I can tell you that the inappropriate sexual proposal was made according to two witness statements," Pennington said the female worker and a conference participant still connected by videoconference in Albuquerque.
"Objectively, 99 out of 100 people would have understood that a sexual proposal was being made," Pennington said. "What Mr. Berkheimer's side of the story (is), I don't know. I'm sure he has a side," he said.
In addition to placing Berkheimer on leave, the agency has brought in an outside investigator.
Berkheimer, a former congressional aide and appointee of Gov. Bill Richardson, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Pennington said attorneys involved in the mediation notified the administration of the allegation. "The administration appropriately started an investigation," he said.
"We take these things very seriously," Cravens said Thursday. "We want to find the truth of the matter as quickly as possible. Then we will take whatever action is necessary depending on the results of the investigation."
Cravens didn't know when a report from Robert Caswell Investigations would be completed.
Berkheimer has worked off and on for Richardson as an exempt state employee, meaning as a political appointee.
Richardson appointed him to the post of mediator at the state workers comp agency in the months following the 2004 election, when Berkheimer lost his bid to unseat state Sen. Diane Snyder, R-Albuquerque.
That position paid $66,137.
New Mexico Workers Compensation Administration director Glenn R. Smith appointed Berkheimer to the position of judge, effective May 5.
Prior to Berkheimer's stint at the workers comp agency, he served as one of five of Richardson's political appointees at the governor's Office of Homeland Security. And he worked as a National Security aide to then-Rep. Richardson in Washington, D.C., from 1995-1997.
By law, workers compensation judges are appointed for an initial one-year term, which may be followed by a subsequent five-year appointment.