City Desk ABQ Article: “City Investigated For Undisclosed Special Payouts To Top Officials Who Resigned”; Departing City CAO Sarita Nair Given $30,000 Cash Out For Unused Sick Leave Contrary To City Personnel Rules And Regulation; City Should Demand Return Of Funds

City Desk ABQis an independent nonprofit newsroom serving and supported by readers and institutions working together to become more informed and better engaged residents of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. City Desk ABQ is a project of Citizen Media Group which is a 501(c)3 organization. Citizen Media Group is an IRS-recognized 501(c)3 nonprofit organization (EIN 13-4302938) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to its web page City Desk ABQ  believe [s] local democracy and civic engagement require a strong local press. To support this purpose, [it] supports programs that develop and provide capacity for local journalists to report on the communities where they live.” City Desk ABQ has a policy that allows the republishing of articles by other media outlets. Links for more information on City Desk ABQ can be found in the  postscript below .


On May 2, 2024 City Desk ABQ published an alarming report  written by  its staff reporter TIERNA UNRUH-ENOS disclosing that the Mayor Tim Keller Administration is being investigated by the City’s Inspector General for improper payouts to top city officials who have n terminated their city employment. Following is the article:

City Desk Headline: “City Investigated For Undisclosed Special Payouts To Top Officials Who  Resigned”


Exclusive in City Desk ABQ

“High-level city officials have been awarded thousands of dollars in extra compensation after announcing their resignations thanks to a special, and mostly unknown, leave program, City Desk ABQ has learned. 

The most high-profile recipient of the “special leave” was Sarita Nair, Mayor Tim Keller’s top aide and the city’s chief administrative officer who announced her resignation from the city less than four months into Keller’s second term in March of 2022. On her final day in the office the next month, she signed a memo from other top city officials providing her with almost 40 extra days of pay worth more than $30,000 through a process outside of normal city policies.

City Desk ABQ has also identified other executives in the city who, in the years since, were awarded bonus leave that converted into extra pay after they announced resignations. 

In interviews with City Desk ABQ, individuals familiar with the practice disclosed that they had been interviewed by the city’s inspector general earlier this year. On Thursday [May 3]  Inspector General Melissa Santistevan confirmed that her office is investigating claims that a select number of high-level former employees were given special treatment when they resigned. Specifically, the office confirmed it is investigating whether Nair was given a deal upon resignation for “special leave.”

According to city spokesperson Ava Montoya, with special authorization, the city can create exceptions for leave policies. “It is not unusual to do so for higher level executives or to take into consideration their health and retirement, as the demands of their roles often restrict them from taking large chunks of leave during their service,” Montoya said.

City Desk ABQ reached out to Nair, who is now the state’s secretary of the Workforce Solutions Department in Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s cabinet, for comment but did not hear back as of press time. 


When Keller was elected for his first term, Nair followed him from the state auditor’s office to city hall and served as the city’s chief administrative officer, a position similar to a city manager. 

In March 2022, Nair announced that she would leave her position on April 22. But she stayed on the payroll for another 80 days until August 12, 2022. During that time she burned vacation leave and weeks of special leave awarded to her on her last day of work through a special process not available to other employees. 

In an internal city memo obtained exclusively by City Desk ABQ dated April 21, 2022, then-HR Director Anthony Romero writes to Nair, “You informed us that your last day of work with the City is Friday, April 22, 2022. You also requested to be compensated for the accrued balances in vacation and sick leave…”

Internal city personnel memo detailing terms of resignation payouts for Sarita Nair, obtained by City Desk ABQ

The memo shows that Nair had accrued 327.3 of vacation leave that could be used. It also listed 313.32 hours of accrued sick leave. 

Under city policy, employees who resign are compensated for unused vacation leave but the rules for cashing out sick leave are more restrictive.  

City Personnel Rules, Section 401.4(E), Sick Leave Conversion at Termination, state “An employee who has an accumulation of sick leave of between 500 hours and the maximum accrual will, upon termination from city employment, be allowed to convert accumulated sick leave in excess of 500 hours on the basis of three (3) hours of sick leave to one (1) hour of cash payment.”

For example, if an employee resigned with 560 hours of unused sick leave, the first 500 would be lost. The next 60 would be converted to cash payments at a three-to-one rate, netting just 20 extra hours of pay for the 560 hours of unused sick leave.

But with just 313.32 hours of sick leave on the books, Nair had not met the minimum standards to be cashed out for it by her resignation date.

In the memo, HR Director Anthony Romero wrote that instead of paying out unused sick leave, which would have violated city policy, Nair would be provided extra compensation – in exactly the same amount as her sick leave balance – in the form of a special category of leave called “Paid Leave – Other (PLO)” which would be paid out at her full hourly rate. City Desk ABQ could find no references to PLO in city personnel ordinances, regulations or labor contracts.

The special paid leave option was also not published in the employee handbook. 

At Nair’s 2021 hourly rate of $96.40 —  reported on the city’s transparency portal — the award of special leave in her final hours as a city employee provided her $30,204 in extra compensation. That is roughly 40 days of leave and benefits to be paid out after her last day of work and eligible vacation leave payout period.

Signatures on the memo show that Nair accepted the bonus leave award on her last day of employment. It was signed by HR Director Romero and initialed by Sanjay Bhakta, the city’s chief financial officer who oversaw human resources, risk management and budget. 

Both Romero and Bhakta retired in 2023. City Desk ABQ reached out to Bhakta, but he declined to comment.” 

The link to review the full City Desk ABQ article and photos is here:


The City Desk ABQ article has pictured in it  an Interoffice Memorandum on City of Albuquerque letter head dated April 21, 2022. The Interoffice Memo is  addressed to Sarita Nair identified as the Chief Administrative Officer and is from Anthony R. Romero, Human Resources Department Director. The interoffice memo has  the subject line “Resignation/Leave Accrual”

According to the memo, Sarita Nair informed the City that her last day would be April 22, 2022. The memo further states that Nair requested to be compensated for the accrued balances in vacation and sick leave.  A Vacation Leave balance of 327.36 Hours representing 40.92 work days is listed.  A Sick Leave balance of 313.32 Hours representing 39.165 work days is listed.

The Interoffice Memorandum goes on to state as follow:

“The 327.36 hours of vacation will be applied to your timecard, beginning Monday April 25,  2022, until the balance is exhausted.  In lieu of your accrued sick leave hours, you will be provided with 313.32 hours of “Paid Leave Other (PLO)”.  The combined number of hours for both vacation and PLO total 640.68 [hours]. The anticipated date that these hours will be exhausted is Friday, August 12, 2022. You will not accrue paid leave while you exhaust these hours.”

The Interoffice Memo has an ACKNOWLEGEMENT OF RECIEPT signature line signed and bearing the signature of Sarita Nair and dated April 22, 2022. Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta initialed the memo and dated the memo  April 22, 2022 thereby giving his approval of the payment.

The net result of  the memo is that it  approves the payment of 327.36 hours of vacation time at the hourly rate of $96.40, or 40.92 days, for a total  of $31,557 dollars.  The memo also approves the payment of 313.32 hours of sick leave converted “one for one” per hour  to ““Paid Leave – Other (PLO)” at the hourly rate of $96.40, or 39.165 days for a total of $30,204.04.  A total cash payout of $61,761,04 was therefore approved. 


In 2017, then New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller was first elected Mayor of Albuquerque riding a wave of popularity as the progressive democrat “white knight” State Auditor who stopped “waste, fraud and abuse” within state government and held government employees accountable for government corruption. As New Mexico State Auditor, he created the division of Government Accountability within the State Auditor’s Office that was responsible for ferreting out “waste, fraud and abuse” in government spending. Keller appointed Sarita Nair as the State Auditor’s Chief Government Accountability Officer and General Counsel and was considered Keller’s right-hand person. She served in that capacity until Keller was sworn into Office as Mayor on December 1, 2017.

Mayor Tim Keller quickly appointed Sarita Nair in December, 2017 as the city’s very first woman to serve as Chief Administrative Officer where she served during Keller’s  first entire 4 year term. As CAO, Ms. Nair was the City’s top senior executive manager, overseeing all 19 departments of municipal government and Department Directors and a $1.1 billion dollar budget. One of her primary responsibilities was to assist in administering the city’s Personnel Rules and Regulations by overseeing  the City’s Human Resources Department. As Chief Administrative Office, Sarita Nair was paid $196,773  and in 2021 was given a raise and paid upwards of $225,000. Her hourly pay rate at the time she left the city was  $96.40.

On March 11, 2022 Mayor Tim Keller announced that  Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Sarita Nair resigned her position and  was leaving in April, less than 4 months into Mayor Tim Keller’s second term.  Informed City Hall sources confirmed that after 4 full years as CAO, Nair had lost the support of the majority of the City Council and her reconfirmation for another 4 years as CAO would not happen so she resigned. A full 9 months after leaving the city, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Nair the Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions and on February 10, 2023 she was confirmed by the State Senate as Cabinet Secretary.


The payment of $30,204 to former Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair in the form of sick leave converted to “Paid Leave – Other (PLO)” is so very wrong on so many levels and reflects a level of sure hypocrisy by Mayor Tim Keller and Sarita Nair. It simply does not pass the smell test. It is difficult to see how the practice of converting sick leave to annual leave on a “one for one” hourly basis is notwaste, fraud and abuse” in government, something both Mayor Keller and his CAO Sarita Nair fought against and first made their reputations on combating when they were with the State Auditor’s Office.

The two individuals who approved the payment, Human Resources Department Director Anthony R. Romero and Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta reported directly to Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair and for that reason alone there is little doubt there was a level of undue influence or preferential treatment involved and they would not deny the request from their departing supervisor.  It is painfully obvious that both Human Resource Director Romero and Chief Financial Officer Bhakta simply ignored city personnel rules and regulations governing the payment of sick leave and simply broke personnel rules and regulations by creating a whole new category of “paid leave” in order to give Sarita Nair, and others, a large financial payout not entitled to.

Nair with just 313.32 hours of sick leave on the books, knew or should have known that she had not met the minimum amount of sick leave to be cashed out but she asked for it anyway and her subordinates Romero and Bhata made it happen. Sarita Nair  is now the cabinet  Secretary of  the Department of Workforce Solutions and State employment has essentially identical policy when it comes to sick leave not being compensated when any state employ terminates employment. 

Chief Administrative Officer Nair was no doubt fully aware that sick leave is lost and not paid when an employee quits and that unused sick leave is not paid out.  Accrued annual leave is totally different and becomes a vested property right upon being earned and must be paid out upon termination.  The underlying philosophy is that sick leave is to be used or its lost and is not to be accumulated as a benefit to be cashed out upon termination. Nair likely lost all sick leave when she left the State Auditors Office and she likely did not want that to happen again when she left the city.

The blunt truth as reported by CITY DESK ABQ is there is no such thing as “Paid Leave – Other (PLO)” in the city’s personnel rules and regulations and it was essentially made up  by Mayor Keller’s Human Resources Director Anthony Romero and Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta. In Nair’s case, there was no conversion of  accumulated sick leave in excess of 500 hours on the basis of three (3) hours of sick leave to one (1) hour of cash payment. Instead, there was a “one for one” hour conversion greatly inflating the cash payout. It is more likely than not that Mayor Tim Keller was aware of what was being done and  he gave his approval given it was his departing loyalist CAO Sarita Nair that was being paid.

The City’s Inspector General needs to be very aggressive with its investigation and identify all those that have been improperly cashed out for sick leave on a “one for one” hourly basis for annual leave and determine to what extent the payouts were approved by Mayor Tim Keller.  The city needs to make demand for reimbursement and the City Attorney should  initiate collection actions against those who have been improperly paid sick leave and seek reimbursement from them.



Links for more information on City Desk ABQ are here:

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Pete Dinelli was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is of Italian and Hispanic descent. He is a 1970 graduate of Del Norte High School, a 1974 graduate of Eastern New Mexico University with a Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and a 1977 graduate of St. Mary's School of Law, San Antonio, Texas. Pete has a 40 year history of community involvement and service as an elected and appointed official and as a practicing attorney in Albuquerque. Pete and his wife Betty Case Dinelli have been married since 1984 and they have two adult sons, Mark, who is an attorney and George, who is an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Pete has been a licensed New Mexico attorney since 1978. Pete has over 27 years of municipal and state government service. Pete’s service to Albuquerque has been extensive. He has been an elected Albuquerque City Councilor, serving as Vice President. He has served as a Worker’s Compensation Judge with Statewide jurisdiction. Pete has been a prosecutor for 15 years and has served as a Bernalillo County Chief Deputy District Attorney, as an Assistant Attorney General and Assistant District Attorney and as a Deputy City Attorney. For eight years, Pete was employed with the City of Albuquerque both as a Deputy City Attorney and Chief Public Safety Officer overseeing the city departments of police, fire, 911 emergency call center and the emergency operations center. While with the City of Albuquerque Legal Department, Pete served as Director of the Safe City Strike Force and Interim Director of the 911 Emergency Operations Center. Pete’s community involvement includes being a past President of the Albuquerque Kiwanis Club, past President of the Our Lady of Fatima School Board, and Board of Directors of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation.