ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Two Public Regulation commissioners are calling for the agency’s chief of staff, Vince Martinez, to step down after Martinez directed a PRC employee to violate a state policy by running a personal errand.
Commissioners Valerie Espinoza and Been Hall also are asking for a third-party investigation into what they call an “abuse of power” by Martinez.
On March 25, Martinez’s son and the son’s girlfriend were stranded just outside Raton after their car broke down on the way home from Denver. Martinez called Deputy Fire Marshal Vernon Muller, who was on state business in Colfax County with another employee, and asked if Muller could drive the two kids back to Santa Fe. Martinez oversees the Fire Marshal’s Office.
The four passengers traveled in Muller’s state vehicle, violating PRC policy. Under the rules, agencies must get written approval from the General Services Department’s Transportation Safety Division before driving non-state employees in a state car. Even in cases of emergency assistance or aid, drivers can only transport people to the nearest safest location.
Cabinet Secretary Ed Burckle told KRQE News 13 that, in the situation involving Martinez’s son, Muller would only have been authorized to drive the passengers to a police station or other safe location in Raton. And Martinez would still have had to get prior permission. Martinez didn’t notify GSD until the next day.
“If that state vehicle were to get into an accident, the state would be liable for the personal injury and any lawsuit that might come out of that,” Burckle said.
Burckle said an anonymous tipster alerted the agency to Martinez’s violation of policy. As a result, GSD has suspended state vehicle driving privileges for Martinez and Muller for 90 days.
PRC Commissioner Espinoza said the punishment doesn’t go far enough.
“I believe what he did constitutes termination,” Espinoza said. “How is it going to look on the agency if you have someone who has directed another employee to commit a violation? (Martinez) should set the bar. He’s the chief of staff. He set a really bad example to all employees that work in this agency.”
Commissioner Hall called the suspension a “slap on the wrist.”
“Martinez did act inappropriately, yes. He’s worked in state government long enough. He knows better,” Hall said.
Hall is asking for a third-party investigator to look into the incident. Espinoza has sent a formal request to State Auditor Hector Balderas’ Office for an investigation.
Commissioners Karen Montoya, Patrick Lyons and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar declined to comment for this story.
Hall and Espinoza said the chief of staff put Muller, an employee Martinez supervises, in a position in which he could not decline the request, despite knowing it would break state rules.
Muller declined to comment, but sources told KRQE News 13 Muller felt intimidated.
Martinez said that’s simply not true.
“(Muller) certainly could have said, ‘No. I’m not comfortable with that,'” Martinez said. “I’m an open and honest official and a boss who does not hesitate one iota to take responsibility for my actions.”
However, Martinez staunchly denies he broke a state policy.
“It’s clear as (the policy) allows for emergency aid, but it also says, ‘or assistance to any person.’ I believe the intent of that was for in cases like this, that weren’t planned, that just came up,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he “self-reported” the incident. He said GSD’s punishment is inappropriate and unfair.
“If I am in error in this policy, then certainly, I accept that. I own that and that’s the way I do business,” Martinez said.
State vehicle abuses are nothing new at the PRC.
In 2012, an independent audit, commissioned by Balderas, found some commissioners drove government vehicles for personal use, while others took state vehicles on out-of-state trips. The audit also revealed PRC employees made $28,000 worth of prohibited gas purchases using state-issued gas cards. Many of those transactions were never recorded, the report found.
Former PRC Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. admitted in 2011 to racking up thousands of dollars in charges on his state-issued gas card and pocketing campaign cash in order to feed his drug addiction. He was sentenced to probation, pay $10,000 in restitution and enter a drug treatment program. He has been in and out of jail since for violating the terms of his plea agreement.