Firing Back

Labor Dept. lawsuit alleges retaliation.

Conroy Chino is having a rough year.

In May, the state Department of Labor (DOL) secretary was the target of complaints alleging he discriminated against Hispanic employees and mismanaged department finances [Outtakes, May 17:


Last week, as previously reported by the Albuquerque Tribune, the situation reached a crescendo when former employee Miguel Gomez filed a discrimination lawsuit against Chino and the DOL in district court.

Gomez, a former Albuquerque city councilor appointed to the DOL in May 2005 by Gov. Bill Richardson,


alleges that Chino (who was confirmed as DOL secretary in February 2003) "caused or precipitated" the resignations of several Hispanic employees and was known within the department for being "extremely anti-Hispanic."

The suit also charges that Chino, who is Native American, forced Gomez to resign in May in retaliation for criticism of Chino.

Department spokesman Carlos Casteñeda declined to comment on the allegations, citing legal and personnel concerns, but says the resignation was "completely voluntary," an assertion denied by Gomez' lawyer Eric Sirotkin.

The lawsuit suggests that SFR's May 17 article detailing complaints about alleged discrimination within the DOL provoked a showdown between Gomez and Chino in the secretary's office on May 22.

Gomez alleges he was told he would be fired if he did not resign. Gomez resigned. The resignation came after weeks of controversy related to Chino's restructuring of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Chino chose to keep some TANF employees and let others go, based, Casteñeda says, on performance evaluations.

But Sirotkin says a disproportionate number of the employees let go were Hispanic. Thus Gomez and other employees went to the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico (HRT), an Albuquerque-based civil rights organization. According to the lawsuit, 18 of the 20 employees let go were Hispanic. That number, HRT chairwoman Evangeline Sandoval Trujillo says, seems too high to have been "created by chance."

Castañeda denies race had anything to do with the TANF hiring process and credits the discrimination claims to a handful of disgruntled individuals.

The complaints sparked inquiries by both the State Personnel Office (SPO) and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). SPO Director Sandra Perez says her office determined that the "transfer and movement of employees was done properly." Casteñeda says the EEOC (which does not comment on investigations) also found no cause for action.

"The Department of Labor was exonerated on each of those complaints," Casteñeda says.

In April, a month or so before the TANF complaints became public, Gomez was given a two-week unpaid leave of absence and subsequently demoted from director of the Employment Security Division to team leader of the Business Outreach Unit. The lawsuit maintains the demotion (and subsequent resignation) was a direct result of Gomez' criticism of the department and Chino.

Sirotkin says he will seek a jury trial and maintains the lawsuit-which seeks punitive and compensatory damages-was the last option available to Gomez for airing his grievances about the DOL.

"We contacted the state to try and see if there was another way of resolving this, but we were not successful," Sirotkin says. "Legal action is always a last resort, but Mr. Gomez also understands that there is a systemic problem [at the DOL], and it's something that needs to be exposed."

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