SANTA FE (KRQE) — The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission wants its money back.
A demand letter sent by the commission to Dwight Lamberson, a former PRC employee who collected eight weeks of sick pay after his last day in the office, asks that he return $14,886 to the public agency.
Lamberson signed for the certified letter last week, according to a receipt provided to KRQE News 13 through a public records request. In an email response to a reporter, he said he was currently negotiating with PRC staff and wouldn’t offer further comment.
Last month, KRQE News 13 reported on Lamberson’s departure deal, which runs counter to PRC policy requiring employees to use sick leave for actual illness. The PRC could not provide any evidence that Lamberson was sick, nor did Lamberson say he’d been ill when he spoke to KRQE News 13 for the report.
An email sent to commissioners at the beginning of July from then-chief of staff Vince Martinez informed them that Lamberson’s last day in the office would be July 23, “at which time he will begin taking some of his leave.” A few weeks later, Martinez told a staffer from human resources to use sick leave to pay Lamberson.
Lamberson’s last official day was September 18. Over the course of those eight weeks, he collected more than $13,000 dollars in sick pay, plus benefits like health insurance and contributions to his public retirement account. The commission wants it all back.
PRC’s letter to Dwight Lamberson
“I’m hoping that he does the right thing and returns the money,” Commissioner Valerie Espinoza said.
Lynda Lovejoy, the PRC commissioner representing much of northwestern New Mexico including the Navajo Nation, said Lamberson’s response so far is akin to a game of cat and mouse.
In a reply to the PRC’s acting chief of staff, Andrea Delling, Lamberson claims he was told by a human resources staffer that he could cash-in unused sick leave after his last day in the office. Such an approval would run contrary to official PRC and state policy, which says sick leave can only be cashed out after 75 days have been accrued. Lamberson wasn’t close to that.
Instead, Lamberson offers to change his retirement date to August 27, arguing he could have used annual leave to extend his time of service to that date. Doing so would presumably garner him a more robust payment from the state’s public retirement system.
But Lamberson has already been paid for that time, too, when the agency cut him a check based on $8,800 of unused annual leave.
Lovejoy said the commission did the right thing in asking for its money back, but she said the whole episode could have been avoided if the PRC had simply followed the rules it already had in place.
“We need to follow state policies and procedures and we need to follow the laws,” Lovejoy said, “And we need accountability and transparency.”
Delling, the acting chief of staff, said in a statement she was “confident that we will resolve this matter to the full extent of our abilities.”
The commission has not apparently taken any action in the case of another employee highlighted by the original KRQE News 13 report, Elisabeth Saiz.
Saiz spent down the balance of her sick leave during her last month on the job. Again, there was no evidence provided by the PRC that Saiz had told her supervisor she’d been ill. On her last two days of work, Saiz’s timecard shows she was paid for being in the office, being sick and being on vacation — all at the same time.