New Mexico agency sued in whistleblower case

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The state’s Economic Development Department and its top executives have been sued by two former agency administrators who allege they were fired for trying to expose wrongdoing in Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

Kurt Saenz, former chief financial officer and administrative services director, and Brent Eastwood, former international trade director, are seeking back pay and damages in their whistleblower lawsuit. The lawsuit was sealed when it was originally filed in state District Court earlier this year, and it only became part of public court records last week.

Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela said in a statement Thursday that the lawsuit’s allegations are “baseless and malicious rantings from disgruntled employees who were fired years ago for threatening workplace violence and numerous instances of sexual harassment.”

The lawsuit alleges a wide range of improper activities within the department, including state contracting violations and efforts by Barela and Deputy Secretary Barbara Brazil to potentially aid a technology company that Barela helped launched years before joining the Martinez administration.

According to the lawsuit, Eastwood was once directed to solicit money from business owners in Mexico to create a “slush fund” for border area marketing.

The lawsuit was first reported Thursday by Mother Jones magazine, a liberal publication that recently published a highly critical profile of Martinez, who is running for re-election this year.

Nathaniel Thompkins, a lawyer for Saenz and Eastwood, disputed there was sexual harassment or threats of violence by his clients.

Both men were hired when Martinez took office in 2011 and were fired in 2012.

According to the lawsuit, Barela and Brazil “conspired to recruit investors” in 2011 for technology company Cerelink, and four investors later received $34,000 in tax credits.

Barela previously has said he ended his involvement with the company several years before joining the Martinez administration, resigning from its board of directors and reducing his ownership to less than 1 percent.

The lawsuit also contends the department violated contract requirements in hiring a website development company.

However, the department contends there were no procurement violations because the value of the website contract was less than the threshold for certain contracting requirements. State rules generally require competitive bidding for contracts but allow certain exceptions.

The lawsuit said Brazil was “working three Dairy Queen franchises which she had a personal interest in while simultaneously being paid by the state of New Mexico.”

But department spokesman Angela Heisel said in a written statement: “To show just how off-base this is, the deputy secretary does not run three Dairy Queens (let alone even one). The only relation is that her daughter happens to operate one Dairy Queen store.”

Martinez’s Democratic gubernatorial challengers were quick to use the lawsuit to criticize the governor.

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