DOH Ask, DOH Tell

Whistleblower battles state for records

Two years ago, Bob Ortiz was a deputy director in the New Mexico Department of Health's Grants Management Bureau. He had experience managing millions of dollars in federal grants at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and says he was hired to help fix a $1.7 million accounting glitch in the DOH's federally funded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC).

Today, Ortiz is paid $96,400 a year to do—well, not much.

Ortiz says that ever since he went public with allegations of fraud by DOH higher-ups, he's been given very little in the way of real responsibilities.

"I'm in time-out," he says.

SFR first reported Ortiz' allegations—that his supervisors ordered him to perform a fraudulent transaction to cover up the accounting error—last year.

Despite general silence from the DOH, Ortiz hasn't abandoned his cause.

In order to shore up his allegations, he filed a public records request to review the minutes taken during a series of meetings he attended concerning the WIC accounting glitch.

On Nov. 23, the DOH denied Ortiz' request, arguing that the meeting notes were unofficial and therefore not considered public record.

Sarah Welsh, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says that argument is familiar, but unfounded.

"The Department of Health regularly takes the position that draft documents are not public record," Welsh says. "We strongly object to that, and this is the same sort of thinking—because it's not official, it's not a public record. That just has no basis in law."

Ortiz decided to try his luck with the new administration and, in January, refiled his Inspection of Public Records request and sent emails detailing his allegations to both Gov. Susana Martinez' general counsel, Jessica Hernandez, and the Cut Waste Tips email hotline.

(SFR's request to the governor's office for comment also went unanswered.)

But on Jan. 31, information started trickling out—in the form of an independent audit by Meyners Co., the now-defunct firm founded by former Education Retirement Board Chairman Bruce Malott. In its evaluation of the DOH, auditors reported 13 findings, two categorized as the most serious type of deficiency, a "material weakness."

The findings range in severity from gas card fraud to a $270,000 typo in WIC program reporting.

According to New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas, the findings are a big deal—especially given the agency's size: It has an approximate $482 million budget and around 4,500 employees—more than any other department.

"Any finding that potentially could impact federal funds is a great concern for me," Balderas tells SFR. "And an agency of this size should have qualified, competent staff to immediately correct this finding."

DOH hasn't done that, even though some deficiencies have persisted since 2007, which Balderas says reveals systemic failings within the DOH.

"It could be understaffing; it could be not having enough internal controls; it could be changes in management," Balderas says. "But this is something that I've been very concerned about across government for the [past] four years, that there are systemic problems with beefing up the policies and procedures."

Balderas says hefty cuts in the Legislature's and governor's proposed budgets will only make it harder for his office to enforce government accountability.

For now, Balderas' as-yet-unfunded Special Investigations Division will refer serious problems to criminal investigators.

He'll have backup: A federal audit of the DOH's management of WIC is also due out later this year, a US Department of Agriculture employee tells SFR.

Meanwhile, the DOH must also put out fires in the courts, where Business Operations Specialist Diane Moore is suing the department for nepotism in hiring, retribution against a whistleblower and inappropriate use of "journal entries" in accounting—an allegation that aligns with the audit findings.

Ortiz may soon join her. After appealing to Gov. Martinez' office to look into his IPRA denial—and receiving no response—Ortiz says he will likely file suit against the DOH. If he wins, Ortiz could receive up to $100 per day in damages since filing his original request.

"I'm trying to find a good charity to give the $100 a day to," Ortiz says.

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