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A former chief financial officer of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission alleges in a new lawsuit filed under the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act he was fired from the job after reporting his suspicions of time card fraud and other wrongdoing by a high-level official, including attempted bribery and procurement violations.
Santa Fe County resident Jim Williamson’s complaint, filed Monday in the state’s First Judicial District Court, accuses then-commission chief of staff Wayne Propst of terminating him in July 2021 in retaliation for “reporting and investigating malfeasance” by Pipeline Safety Bureau Chief Jason Montoya.
Propst is now Cabinet secretary of the state Department of Finance and Administration. Montoya, who remains the bureau chief, served as interim chief of staff for the Public Regulation Commission for more than two years before Propst came on board in April 2021. Both are named as defendants in the complaint, along with the commission.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and other relief.
Propst and Montoya declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit.
Commission spokesman Patrick Rodriguez wrote in an email, “While we haven’t yet been served with the complaint, we will review the allegations and respond to the allegations as provided by law.”
Williamson says in the complaint he was hired as the commission’s chief financial officer and director of its Administrative Services Division in March 2019, after previously serving as director of the Consumer Relations Division. His top job was bringing the agency into financial compliance.
He immediately faced resistance from Montoya, who was serving in the dual roles as Pipeline Safety Bureau chief and chief of staff, the suit says, noting the potential conflicts because the chief of staff has supervisory duties over the bureau chief.
The suit accuses Montoya of forbidding Williamson “from sharing any information about his findings with any commissioners.”
Montoya, whose bureau is federally funded, refused to turn over documents on federal grant spending, Williamson’s lawsuit alleges.
When he raised concerns about a commission employee hiring private companies for $150,000 worth of work for the Utilities Division with “no competitive bidding process, no contract, and no purchase order prior to services being rendered,” Williamson says in his complaint, Montoya tried to shield the violation. He first ordered Williamson to speak with a state purchasing agent about how to get the invoices paid, the suit alleges. After the agent found a formal violation, the suit adds, Montoya directed Williamson “not to disclose the violations to the PRC commissioners.”
Months later, in May 2020, Williamson alleges in the lawsuit, he heard from another commission employee Montoya had been stealing from federal Pipeline Safety Bureau funds by committing time card fraud.
Williamson investigated and found Montoya had overpaid himself almost $14,000 by claiming his salary for interim chief of staff while he was performing bureau chief duties, the suit alleges. The former salary was $19.53 per hour more than the latter, the complaint states.
When Williamson confronted Montoya about the fraud, the suit alleges, Montoya tried to bribe him with a salary increase.
Williamson reported his suspicions of fraud to attorneys with the commission and to the Financial Control Division of the Department of Finance and Administration, and officials required Montoya to pay back the “fraudulent overpayments” in increments of $500, the suit states.
Even after Propst became the commission’s chief of staff, Williamson alleges, he learned Montoya continued to overpay himself with federal grant funding. He notified PRC staff about this in June 2021, his suit states, and Propst fired him the next month on a Zoom call without providing a reason.
Montoya did not seek the permanent chief of staff position at the agency, but was highly praised by several commissioners when they named Propst to the job in March 2021.
Propst, who previously headed the staff of the state Senate Finance Committee and led the New Mexico Public Employees Retirement Association, departed the commission in December 2022, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed him secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration.
Santa Fe attorney John Day, who is representing Williamson, declined to comment Wednesday on the allegations in the lawsuit but wrote in an email, “This is exactly the type of public malfeasance that the Whistleblower Protection Act was designed to address.”
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