City Desk ABQ Article: “Inspector general finds mayor’s staff received preferential treatment, gave over $52,000 in taxpayer dollars in sick leave payouts”; City Council Should Order City Attorney To Make Demand For Reimbursement Or Initiate Collection And Reimbursement Actions

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On June 11, 2024 City Desk ABQ published an alarming report  written by  its staff reporter TIERNA UNRUH-ENOS disclosing that the City’s Inspector General has found that Mayor Tim Keller’s  staff has received preferential treatment and has been give over $52,000 in taxpayer dollars in improper sick leave payouts.   Following is the unedited  article:

City Desk Headline: Inspector general finds mayor’s staff received preferential treatment, gave over $52,000 in taxpayer dollars in sick leave payouts”

BY TIERNA UNRUH-ENOSCity Desk ABQ, June 11, 2024

Exclusive in City Desk ABQ

“After a monthslong investigation into allegations that the mayor’s staff and top administrators received preferential treatment and sick leave bonuses upon resignation, the city’s inspector general released its findings this week. The report details the investigation into 11 employees, who received a total of more than $52,000 in taxpayer money that the inspector general told the administration it should now try to recover.

On Jan. 4, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) received a complaint alleging violations of the city’s personnel policy and abuse of power by a department director. 

A City Desk ABQ investigation earlier this year raised questions about the city’s use of sick leave bonuses for employees who submitted their resignations. The newly published the OIG report confirms the use of that practice for top city officials. 

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. 

Nair announced her resignation from the city less than four months into Keller’s second term in March 2022. According to city documents and payroll records, Nair physically worked for the city through April 2022. Upon her resignation in April, Nair signed a memo that granted her almost 40 extra days of pay — costing the city more than $33,000 through a process outside of normal city policies. According to the OIG, Nair continued to earn vacation and sick leave through June 2022 and then accrued paid leave from June to August 2022 when she collected her last paycheck, even though she was not physically working at the city. 

The investigation also revealed that on July 1 Nair received a pay raise per the city’s approved budget, despite not physically working for the city. 

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

Nair is now the state’s secretary of the Workforce Solutions Department.  

City Desk ABQ reached out to Nair for comment but did not hear back as of press time. 

“The City can create exceptions for leave policies, and it is not unusual to do so for senior employees, as the demands of their roles often restrict them from taking large chunks of leave during their service,” Ava Montoya, spokesperson for the Department of Human Resources, told City Desk ABQ.  “We acknowledge the City’s longstanding practice of negotiating vacation and sick leave, and we disagree with the OIG’s subjective opinions. It is noteworthy that the Accountability in Government oversight committee, which oversees the OIG, did not approve the report.”


City payroll records reviewed by City Desk ABQ and interviews with city employees also identified additional employees who had received sick leave payments after resigning. According to the OIG report, one of those employees — a department director who oversaw risk management and spoke with City Desk ABQ — was granted a special settlement agreement that restored 500 hours of sick leave she lost when she resigned from her position with Council Services years before. 

According to the OIG, the total cost of that sick leave was over $40,000. The director was put on personal leave in September 2023, through when her resignation went into effect in December. 

Previous investigations by City Desk ABQ revealed that the director who oversaw risk management was one of the city officials who raised concerns about the city’s mishandling of asbestos exposure during the construction of the Gibson Health Hub. She and at least one other official were threatened with reassignment and then quietly placed on sick leave.

The OIG’s investigation also revealed at least two other city administrators who signed settlement agreements for sick leave payouts skirted the law that requires settlements to be approved by the Settlement Advisory Committee, which includes members of the City Council. 

Those settlements amount to more than $17,000 in sick leave bonuses. 

According to the OIG’s investigation, each manager who received a special payout may have also received additional benefits from the extended city-provided insurance and PERA, the state’s retirement fund. 


The OIG’s investigation of the 11 city employees who allegedly received benefits that were not given to other city employees found that the practice creates a perception of preferential treatment, in addition to costing the city and the taxpayer money that would have otherwise not been paid out. 

The OIG found that the violation of the city’s own policies resulted in the city paying out over $52,000 to certain employees in the form of sick leave bonuses. Although the payouts totaled more than $52,000, the OIG was not able to substantiate all claims of abuse. 

The OIG recommended that Nair and at least three other managers pay the city back for their sick leave bonuses. 

Only one employee who is not a top official who had been overpaid has already reimbursed the city for $526.86. 

In a previous investigation released by the inspector general, one other city official who is still currently working for the city, was found to have been given excess leave totaling $12,116. That investigation also recommended the city should calculate the value of all additional benefits given to the official and recoup the cost of those benefits.

In both investigations, the OIG recommended that the city’s Human Resources Department should undergo training on the city’s own policies. 

In response, the [Keller] administration ignored all recommendations and replied that policies allowed them to pay out sick leave for retiring employees. However, only one of the employees named in City Desk ABQ or OIG reports retired and the rest voluntarily resigned.”


The payment of $52,000 in taxpayer dollars to 11 city hall employees sick leave bonuses, with $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. 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 not “waste, fraud and abuse” in government, something  Mayor Keller fought against and first made his reputation on combating when he was New Mexico State Auditor.

It cannot be ignored that the two individuals who approved the payment to former Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair were Human Resources Department Director Anthony R. Romero and Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta who  reported directly to then CAO Sarita Nair.  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 they were 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 it is 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 was originally 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.

Now that the  City’s Inspector General report has been released and has identified those who  have been improperly cashed out for sick leave, the city needs to make demand for full reimbursement.  The City Attorney should  initiate collection actions against those who have been improperly paid sick leave and seek reimbursement from them.  It’s unacceptable that the Keller Administration has ignored all recommendations and replied that city policies allowed them to pay out sick leave for retiring employees.  Only one of the employees named in City Desk ABQ or OIG reports retired and the rest voluntarily resigned.

If Mayor Tim Keller refuses to instruct the City Attorney to initiate collection and reimbursement actions, the City Council needs to order the City Attorney to take action.



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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.