Three years after allegations of fraud first surfaced at the New Mexico Department of Health, the state's second-largest agency is still dealing with the aftermath.
At the center of the allegations is former DOH employee Bob Ortiz—once a high-paid deputy director whose conflicts with the department culminated in his firing earlier this month.
Ortiz' story begins in June 2009, when he says his superiors at the department ordered him to make a fraudulent transaction worth $1.7 million. Ortiz' allegations, first reported by SFR in January 2010, kicked off a chain of events that highlight continuing conflict within the agency [cover story, Jan. 13, 2010: "DOH!"].
After telling his story to SFR, Ortiz says he has endured ongoing retaliation by department higher-ups. First, he was relieved of his responsibilities as deputy director of DOH's Grants Management Bureau. Then, on Nov. 29, 2011, he was placed on paid administrative leave for a whopping six months—far longer than state policy usually allows. Finally, earlier this month, he was fired—a move Ortiz now plans to appeal in the courts.
According to a dismissal letter sent by Deputy Secretary of Programs Jim Green, Ortiz was fired for "inappropriate and unprofessional conduct" and "creating a hostile work environment," but much of the letter focuses on his "disingenuous or irresponsible communication with the media."
While Ortiz concedes that he signed an employee code of conduct promising not to speak to the media as a representative of DOH, he maintains that it's within his rights to report wrongdoing as an individual whistle-blower.
Ortiz therefore considers his firing a violation of the state's Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects public employees' rights to speak to the media about an "action or a failure to act" that they "believe in good faith constitutes an unlawful or proper act."
"I always thought they wanted to fire me for going to the press," Ortiz tells SFR. "I just never thought they'd put it in writing."
In 2009 Ortiz handled large transactions in the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food and nutritional services to low-income women and children. Ortiz alleges that deputy Mike Mulligan, then the Administrative Services Division director, and former Deputy Secretary Duffy Rodriguez ordered him to wrongly transfer $1.7 million in WIC spending from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2009.
Ortiz says he complied, but felt that it was wrong. Soon after, he began raising concerns to his superiors.
"It's not like Bob didn't try to work with the chain of command," his attorney, Diane Garrity, points out. "He was forced to bring this to the light of day with media exposure." (Garrity was also the attorney for former DOH employee Diane Moore, who reported similar allegations in the same 2010 SFR cover story and recently settled with the state for an undisclosed sum.)
But when the department conducted an internal investigation on Sept. 21, 2009, the auditors declined to interview Ortiz about his concerns—so Ortiz took his story to the media.
Mulligan, who declined to comment for this story, has previously denied Ortiz' allegations.
"I never directed anyone to cover anything up, and in fact, was rectifying a serious problem created in part by Mr. Ortiz," he wrote to SFR in an Oct. 11, 2011 letter to the editor. "Bob Ortiz' disregard for or ignorance of the most basic accounting principles led to our disagreement."
In Ortiz' termination letter, Deputy Secretary of Programs Jim Green accuses Ortiz of wrongly directing that same $1.7 million into the DOH's accounting system and creating an overrun. Green adds that DOH ordered Ortiz to fix it.
"Unless corrected, it would have resulted in the appearance that the Department had exceeded allowable spending from the grant in the amount of $1.4 million dollars," Green writes.
Green cites internal and external reports as evidence that Ortiz' allegations are false. DOH didn't provide SFR with any of the cited internal reports before press time.
Green also criticizes Ortiz for publicly repeating his allegations against Mulligan over the years.
"I don't know what they think I keep lying about," Ortiz says. "I'll say it again: Mike Mulligan ordered me to do the reverse entry, and Duffy Rodriguez told me to listen to him."
Ortiz also notes certain contradictions in the letter, which criticizes him for talking to the press but also for failing to call the press to correct the "self-serving statements" he made.
"You can't have it both ways," Ortiz says. "Stick to a side."
Last November, DOH put Ortiz on paid administrative leave without citing a reason. Ortiz remained on leave from Nov. 29, 2011 until the date of his firing, June 6, 2012, confirms State Personnel Office spokesman Tim Korte. State policy allows departments to put employees on paid administrative leave for up to five days, but SPO must approve any extra time. It's unclear whether DOH followed the rules in Ortiz' situation. Korte referred the question to DOH spokeswoman Aimee Barabe, who wouldn't comment on Ortiz' case because it's a personnel issue. Green also did not respond to SFR's emailed questions before press time.
"I was never informed that they got permission," Ortiz says. He estimates that his paid leave cost the state around $50,000 to $60,000.
Former Health Secretary Alfredo Vigil says he can't recall if any similar lengthy administrative leaves occurred under his tenure. Paul Gessing, executive director of the right-leaning Rio Grande Foundation, says state agencies should set one- or two-month time limits to make a decision on whether to fire an employee or not.
"It does open itself up to abuses when you have people in this limbo for a long time," Gessing tells SFR.
Throughout the mess, Ortiz is still convinced that the truth is on his side. His dismissal letter accuses him of knowingly telling SFR false information over the past two years.
"They're calling me a liar. That probably hurts more than being terminated," Ortiz says. He plans to ask for $100 a day in damages over a nearly two-year period, double his pay for every workday since his termination, and his job back. "Trying to prove me a liar is going to be a very hard thing to do."
Bob Ortiz’ dismissal letter also outlines disdain for SFR’s recent reporting of DOH, including coverage not directly related to Ortiz.
“Through 2011, Reporter articles and related blogs continued to focus on the Department and its employees through repeated allegations and personal attacks,” Green writes. He cites a December 2009 SFR blog post that detailed concerns of nepotistic hiring in DOH from state Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Bernalillo [SFReporter.com, Dec. 4, 2009: “Feet to the Fire”].
“The blog contained numerous personal attacks on individual DOH employees, which were hurtful, disingenuous, unfair, and offensive,” Green writes.
Ortiz wasn’t written about nor quoted in “
,” although he was mentioned in online comments following the post.
For more details about Ortiz' allegations,
Read Ortiz' full dismissal letter below: