It has been reported that on January 24 a “whistleblower lawsuit” was filed against the Mayor Tim Keller Administration in State District Court by a terminated Deputy Human Resources Director. According to the lawsuit, the former employee alleges that she was repeatedly directed to hire preselected people, fabricate reasons for reassigning others and give preferential treatment to “millennial” job candidates and “friends and allies” of Keller’s executive management team.
Keller’s executive team includes Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair, Chief Operations Officer Lawrence Rael and Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta and all 16 Department Directors. Bhakta is named in his professional capacity in overseeing the Human Resources Department and in and individual capacity. All of the executive team are at will employees and serve at the pleasure of Keller.
A link to the full Albuquerque Journal article is here:
The plaintiff in the whistleblower case is identified as Patricia Martinez. She was the Deputy Director of the city’s Human Resources Department. She was fired January 31, 2020 by Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Sanjay Bhadka, who oversees the Department of Human Resources. She is claiming that Mayor Tim Keller’s administration manipulated the city’s hiring and personnel rules and regulations, merit system ordinance, demanding that she do the Keller Administration’s bidding. According to the lawsuit, she raised concerns with City Attorney Estaban Aguilar and to the City’s Inspector General and she was fired for it.
The allegations include that the Keller Administration Human Resources Department is “driven by a mayoral administration with an agenda of “quid pro quo” practices, cronyism, racism, defiance of the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act and a general spirit of flouting established City of Albuquerque rules and regulations and best practices”.
Specific allegations in the whistle blower lawsuit include the following:
1. Members of the Keller’s executive team directed her to hire a specific person as a Human Resources Investigator with Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Sanjay Bhakta instructing her to score that candidate the highest for the position, even if a current city employee scored better. Bhakta oversees Human Resources.
2. CFO Bhakta directed Martinez to personally check on an applicant and find him a job in Human Resources because Bhakta “knew his mother.”
3. Keller’s project manager and the city’s planning director told Martinez “that Mayor Keller wanted to restructure the Planning Department in an effort to remove two employees”. According to the lawsuit, Martinez said she told Bhakta the two employees were classified positions and that they could not be removed was without cause as per the personnel rules and regulations.
4. A senior personnel officer from Municipal Development asked Martinez to lower a division manager’s salary “to assist him in double dipping on external retirement benefits,” and that Bhakta had already made that request once previously. According to the lawsuit, Martinez denied the request.
5. CFO Bhakta is alleged to have said that “blacks and Hispanics are dumb’ or words to that effect.”
6. Bhakta and City Atorney Esteban Aguilar Jr. on separate occasions gave Martinez directions meant to subvert the state’s public records law, with Bhakta telling her not to put certain information in email and Aguilar asking for documents to be hand-delivered to avoid a paper trail.
7. Bhakta told Martinez to transfer the Albuquerque Police Department’s Human Resources coordinator to the Aviation Department, “despite the fact [the Aviation Deparment] was already staffed with three other HR administrators.” That shuffling created a spot at APD that officials could use to reassign someone they wanted removed from the central Human Resources Department.
According to the lawsuit, “members of Keller’s executive team’ told Martinez that the mayor and others on his team wanted to replace the director and employment manager who were working in the HR Department at the time. They told Martinez — who started as Albuquerque’s deputy HR director in October 2018 after holding a similar job at the city of Rio Rancho — that she was the department’s “de facto director” which she interpreted to mean that she would get the top job if she followed their directions.”
The lawsuit goes on to allege that “… Bhakta told Martinez that high-ranking APD officials wanted to fire the department’s HR coordinator. … Bhakta further asserted to Ms. Martinez that because [the HR coordinator] was African American, the Executive team could not fire her because they did not want any problems with the ‘Black’ community as Mayor Keller was receiving pressure from the African American community due to his limited hiring of African Americans. ”
According to the complaint, the employee who moved from central Human Resources Department to APD received a “substantial” pay raise. When Martinez raised concerns with Bhakta about the transfer and raise, the lawsuit alleges: “[Bhata] stated he wanted to give her less but Lawrence Rael, the city’s Chief Operating Officers, was a friend of hers and her husband and persuaded Defendant Bhakta to increase his proposed offer to her otherwise she would not accept it and would stay in Human Resources.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Frankly, as disappointing as it is, the hiring of preselected people and fabricating reasons to get rid of people happens at the beginning of all Mayoral Administrations. It usually happens when you have people from the prior administration desperate to hold on to their jobs who hold “unclassified” or at will positions and who then attempt to have their positions become “classified”. It also happens when a Mayor-elect is desperate to fill city hall with supporters who worked on the campaign, who want high paying jobs and who do not have the necessary minimum qualifications to fill a job.
KELLER’S EARLY PERSONNEL HIRES
Truth be known there were very early warning signs that the Keller Administration was inept or feckless enough to abuse the city’s personnel rules and regulations and that Tim Keller had a real hang up about age.
In 2018, During Mayor Keller’s first months in office, he was initially given high marks for appointing experienced city hall people like former New Mexico Treasurer James Lewis, former City CAO Lawrence Rael and former City Attorney and CAO David Campbell to key positions. Within a year both Lewis and Campbell were gone with confidential sources saying Keller had a tendency to just ignore their advice. Keller was also given high marks for appointing woman to executive positions including Sarita Nair as Chief Administration Officer, Shelle Sanchez as Cultural Services Director, Mary Scott as Human Service Director, Ana Sanchez as Senior Affairs Director, Nyka Allen as Aviation Director and Katy Duhigg as City Clerk.
Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair and Chief Financial Officer Sanja Bhutka worked for Tim Keller when he was New Mexico State Auditor. Both Nair and Bhutka are viewed as within Keller’s inner circle and as political operatives at his beckon call.
As Keller’s first year in office progressed, Keller had a few vetting and appointment missteps with a City Clerk nominee and then the City Attorney appointment. The first City Clerk nominee withdrew her acceptance of her appointment because her financial problems and tax lien problems where investigated and reported upon by the Albuquerque Journal. This indicated a failed “vetting process” for political appointments.
A second appointment misstep was soliciting and appointing beyond the advertised application closing date a City Attorney who needed to be confirmed by the City Council. The soliciting and appointing a city attorney after the closure date for applications and after all applicant interviews had been conducted resulted in the charge of political cronyism against Keller’s Chief Administrative Officer who knows and went to law school with the city attorney selected. Keller also had told others he wanted a City Attorney in his 40’s.
Keller raised more than a few eyebrows and protests during his first year in office regarding the following appointments and salaries paid to them:
A. Keller created an Assistant Mayor position and hired Obama Administration Political Strategist Gary Lee at $75,000. Lee only reported to Keller and within months quite the job for undisclosed reasons.
B. Keller appointed his longtime political consultant and campaign manager Alan Packman at $75,000 to work at 311. Packman only reports to Keller and is now paid $82,000 and has absolutely no call center experience.
C. Keller hired former New Jersey State Trooper Leonard Nerbetski as the “Real Time Crime Center Director”. Nerbetski was hired even though he has a history of excessive use of force that resulted in hundreds of thousands paid in settlements. Albuquerque is under a DOJ consent decree for APD’s excessive use of force and deadly force calling into question if the new hire could be committed to constitutional policing practices.
MAYOR TIM KELLER’S HANG UP ABOUT AGE
What differentiates the whistle blower lawsuit from the norm is the allegation that Mayor Keller wanted to give preferential treatment to “millennial” job applicants. Keller was elected at the age of 40 and is now 43 and considers himself a millennial. He does not realize he is now middle age, but at times does not act it.
Back in October, 2017 Tim Keller said he wanted to attract and hire people within his own age group, which is understandable and can be appreciated, provided you can find qualified people. Mayor Keller was elected with huge support of the progressive wing of the Democrat Party, which has a likely majority of people in the 55+ age group.
The majority of people who voted in the 2017 election probably had 15 to 20 years on Mayor Keller, or at least a lot more gray hair than he does. Age and academic credentials should not be the overriding determining factor to be a City Hall Director, but competency and management skills should be. Just because a person is in their 50s and 60s should not exclude them from any management position.
Frankly, Mayor Keller’s hang up about age is well known by city hall insiders as well as people who worked on his campaign in 2017 and his transition team. One source that worked on Keller’s campaign reported that Keller consistently surrounded himself with younger campaign workers and would go out of his way NOT to get input from “older workers” not in his age group.
After being elected Mayor, Keller made it known to more than one person on his transition team that he wanted to surround himself with his “generation” as Department heads and people in their 40’s. Experience and knowledge of city hall and ability to do a job was not as critical to Keller as was age. Review of Keller’s list of Department Directors confirms this point.
This explains a lot, especially the fact that Mayor Tim Keller is known to hold Director’s meetings at “Kinder Care” facilities.
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