Absent With Leave: PRC employees cash in before stepping out

SANTA FE (KRQE) — Dwight Lamberson resigned from his job as utilities division director at the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission in July. He’d given more than two weeks’ notice and left the office on a hot, sunny Thursday afternoon.

But when Lamberson walked out the door of his $86,000-a-year public job, he didn’t officially quit for another two months.

Lamberson LinkedIn
Dwight Lamberson (LinkedIn)

And he collected a paycheck the whole time.

Lamberson and another former PRC employee, Elizabeth Saiz, took unusual amounts of sick leave immediately prior to quitting. It’s not clear either one was ill. The practice runs counter to PRC policy, state personnel rules and state law. It also raises questions about financial stewardship that few at the cash-strapped agency seem willing to answer.

New Mexico law allows employees to get paid for unused sick leave when they retire or quit, but only after they’ve accrued 600 hours — 75 days — of unused leave. Even then, employees can only get paid for sick leave accumulated over and above that 600 hours. And it’s to be paid out at half the employee’s hourly rate for a maximum of 400 hours.

Dwight Lamberson wasn’t close to the 600-hour floor above which he could get paid for unused sick time. Neither was Elizabeth Saiz.

Over the two months Lamberson was gone — but technically still on the payroll — the PRC paid him his full hourly rate for 320 hours of sick leave. Ordinarily, he would have only been eligible to collect $8,800 for his unused annual leave. By using sick leave, Lamberson collected an extra $13,232.

The sick leave plan was approved by then-chief of staff at the PRC, Vince Martinez. KRQE News 13 was unable to reach Martinez for comment on this story. A voicemail left at a cell phone number for him was not returned.

In emails and internal documents obtained by KRQE News 13 through a public records request and other sources, Martinez informed commissioners that Lamberson “will begin taking some of his leave” after his last day in the office. Martinez didn’t specify to commissioners what kind of leave Lamberson planned to take, but a week after the division director left, Martinez told a human resources staffer to use sick leave to pay him.

The PRC could not provide any evidence that Lamberson was actually sick.

Reached by telephone, Lamberson told KRQE News 13 that his leave had been given the green light by Martinez and others. He did not dispute that he took the leave without having been sick.

“My sick leave was approved by the HR department,” Lamberson said. Using accumulated sick leave in the days leading up to leaving the agency “was a common practice,” he said, “(that) people are generally allowed to take.”

Lamberson also defended his supervisor: “I don’t think it’s fair to dump all this on Vince Martinez.” He added, “The commissioners should have known (about the arrangement,) if they’d wanted to know.”

Vince Martinez resigned from his post at the PRC in the fall after a public records request by the Santa Fe New Mexican led to a lawsuit being filed by the PRC. The newspaper eventually won a settlement from the agency.

Months earlier, Martinez had been in front of the Legislature asking for more money for the PRC. Despite a higher-than-normal vacancy rate, the agency had bumped up against its budget limits. Martinez and the PRC asked for the ability to shift $480,000 from a firefighter training fund to cover personnel costs. The funding shift successfully made its way through the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Susana Martinez.

Andrea Delling, the interim chief of staff at the PRC, refused multiple requests for an interview with KRQE News 13. Through the agency’s spokesman, Delling said her predecessor had ordered human resources to let him determine how to allocate Lamberson’s remaining leave. She also released a statement:

“I cannot speak to what occurred in the Chief of Staff’s office prior to my appointment as Interim Chief of Staff. Those were decisions approved by then-chief of staff, Vince Martinez. I have no information regarding the arrangements made with the two departing employees. I can state that nothing similar has taken place since I’ve been in this office, and I don’t expect that to change.”

When KRQE News 13 attempted to ask Delling in person if the agency had investigated sick time approvals by her predecessor, Delling grabbed a photographer’s camera and pushed it aside as she walked past. She then walked across the hall and said, “I’m in a commissioner’s office” before closing the door.

Though PRC policy expressly designates the chief of staff as the point of contact for non-routine media inquiries, Delling later claimed through a spokesman that she was not allowed to speak to the media without first getting approval from the commission.

Dwight Lamberson’s last day in the office at the PRC came the same month as that of Elizabeth Saiz.

A hearing examiner at the agency, Saiz took sick leave on 13 of her final 24 days on the job. The time sheets for her last month of work are a jumble of sick leave, holiday pay, annual leave and actual time worked as Saiz “spent-down” her balance of sick leave.

When Saiz left the PRC on July 31, she had no sick time remaining and 240 hours of annual leave to cash in. The agency paid her $5,750 for the annual leave. The sick leave she’d taken since June 29 totaled $2,232 in pay.

Again, KRQE News 13 asked the PRC to provide evidence that Saiz had an acceptable excuse as she exhausted her sick leave balance. The agency neither produced such records nor indicated that it had kept them secret to any extent allowed by law.

At the PRC, word of the sick leave arrangements got around. Last year, an anonymous tip to the Office of the State Auditor prompted the agency to ask the State Personnel Office to investigate the matter. This week, that agency concluded its inquiry. It found that the leave taken by Lamberson and Saiz would have been improper. But it also found that the leave had been approved by Lamberson’s supervisor, Vince Martinez, and by Saiz’s supervisor, the director of her division at the PRC.

The PRC would now have to launch its own investigation into the matter to determine if any rules were broken. All three employees involved no longer work for the commission and there is no indication such an inquiry is in the works.

Justine Freeman, a spokeswoman for the Office of the State Auditor, said it plans to “require additional testing of policies and procedures related to human resources in the next annual audit.”

Few at the PRC are willing to speak publicly about the sick leave arrangments. Of the five commissioners currently serving on the PRC, only one, newly elected chairwoman Valerie Espinoza, would consent to an interview.

Espinoza was not pleased.

“I mean, to pay somebody sick leave that’s not actually ill is a travesty,” she said. “Because you’ve got to remember it’s taxpayer money we’re talking about here … That’s like (parking) in a handicapped parking spot and … you don’t have a placard.”

Espinoza said many people at the PRC have worked hard to shed the agency’s bruised image, “but the black eyes just don’t go away.”

The sick leave deal hurts morale, Espinoza said. “It just doesn’t sit well because we have these other, loyal employees who come to work every day, who mark their one hour of leave, who mark their two hours of sick leave. And then we learn of this episode.”

While Dwight Lamberson claimed such sick leave allowances were commonplace, he could not point to another employee who had garnered the same benefit.

When a reporter asked Lamberson if — regardless of whether or not the practice was widespread — it was an ethical thing for a state employee to do, he didn’t speak for 30 seconds. Then, he hung up.

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