Are state employees “playing hooky” on taxpayers dime?

Larry Barker

There are a couple of ‘ghosts’ who frequent a nondescript Santa Fe office building. No, not the scary Halloween type apparitions, we’re talking about some well-paid public employees who only show up for work sporadically and disappear for long periods of time.

Who are they? Meet the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) Executive Assistants.

Governed by five elected officials, the PRC is a far-reaching state agency that oversees everything from utility rates to pipeline safety. Among the 129 PRC employees, there are five $72,000 a year Executive Assistants that staff each of the commissioner’s Santa Fe offices. 

So, for example, if you have a problem with your utility bill you could drop in on one of the PRC Commissioners for some help. But if you timed your visit on Monday, October 15 at 11:20 a.m. you would find a series of darkened office suites and locked doors. While most state employees are at work on this day, Commissioners Lovejoy, Hall and Lyons (and their staff) are nowhere to be found.

A year-long News 13 investigation finds most PRC Commissioners and their Executive Assistants only show up for work at the Santa Fe office sporadically. And while the Commissioners, who are elected officials, are not required to account for their time, the Executive Assistants must comply with state personnel rules. In fact, our investigation finds some assistants appear to be playing hooky on the taxpayer’s dime. Even though their time cards reflect working hours, they are frequently absent from their Santa Fe office suites. 

PRC Chief of Staff Ernest Archuleta says the Commissioner’s Executive Assistants are not ‘special’ employees. “Their normal work schedule is generally an 8 to 5 schedule Monday through Friday with an hour lunch.” The Chief of Staff adds if any PRC employee doesn’t come to work and fails to note the absence on their time cards then, “that’s a problem.”

Consider the work habits of Commissioner Lynda Lovejoy’s Executive Assistant, Andre Cordero. A KRQE News 13 spot check over the last year indicates Andre Cordero was not at work for numerous random days. A review of his time cards shows Cordero did not take leave for those days.

For example, KRQE News 13 found Cordero was not at work on dozens of days in 2017 including:

  • Friday, June 16 
  • Friday, November 17
  • Tuesday, November 21
  • Monday, November 27
  • Monday, December 11
  • Wednesday, December 13
  • Friday, December 15
  • Monday, December 18
  • Tuesday, December 19
  • Friday, December 22.

Cordero says he is at the office every day. He denies ‘fudging’ on his time card. “I was here. That’s my job responsibility to be in this office,” Commissioner Lovejoy’s Executive Assistant told KRQE News 13 that he might have been out to lunch when we did our spot check. “I’m here a lot. When I leave the office I might get something to eat and then I come back. But most of the time, my (schedule is) consistent.”

Commissioner Lovejoy says she is not concerned about her assistant’s work schedule. “Andre is probably the only assistant who is here,” Lovejoy says. “My assistant along with other Commissioner’s assistants are exempt. (Andre) doesn’t have to be here 8 to 5 Monday through Friday. I will just not accept the fact that my assistant is misleading his time,” Lovejoy says. Commissioner Lovejoy explains Andre works in the office Monday through Wednesday and works in the field Thursday and Friday.

Shortly after we asked Andre Cordero about his time card discrepancies, he resigned from the PRC.

KRQE News 13’s investigation also documented numerous time card inconsistencies by Deborah Bransford, Commissioner Pat Lyons’ Executive Assistant. For example, some of the days Ms. Bransford was absent from her PRC office in 2017 and 2018 were:

2017:

  • Wednesday, December 13
  • Friday, December 15
  • Monday, December 18
  • Friday, December 22

2018:

  • Friday, February 2,
  • Tuesday, February 6
  • Thursday, February 15
  • Friday, February 16

On those dates, Ms. Bransford indicated on her time card she was working and did not take leave. 

Deborah Bransford says Commissioner Lyons gives her permission to ‘telecommute’ by carrying a cell phone and working from home at times. “I may not always be at my desk but I’m always available,” Bransford says. “My phone is attached to my office. I am required to carry (a cell phone) 24/7. I’m on call 24/7 and I am not eligible for overtime,” Bransford told News 13.

“I do letters for my employer. I do whatever he needs me to do and I check e-mails. I respond to e-mails. I call people. I have access to calls at the office. I resolve critical issues, complaints,” Bransford says.

State Auditor Wayne Johnson says telecommuting is permitted only when a state agency has a written policy governing work-at-home rules. “It’s not the rule here in the state of New Mexico that every employee, at the drop of a hat, can decide, ‘Well, I’m not going to go into work today. I’m going to telecommute,'” Johnson says.

PRC Chief of Staff Ernest Archuleta says the Public Regulation Commission does not have a telecommuting policy. “It is not permitted because there is no policy at this time,” Archuleta says.

State Auditor Johnson says the PRC’s lack of a telecommuting policy is “absolutely” a problem. “What the policy helps you do is create an environment of accountability for the employee,” Johnson says.

And, there’s more. 

Commissioner Cynthia Hall’s Santa Fe office is routinely closed. Commissioner Hall also gives her Executive Assistant permission to work at home. KRQE News 13’s spot check last year documented more than three dozen days that Hall’s then assistant Stephanie Dzur was not in the office and did not take leave. Dzur resigned earlier this year. 

Commissioner Hall says her new assistant, Heather Alvarez, is also permitted at times to work at home and telecommute.

“It is not permissible for an employee just not to come to work and get paid for it,” Wayne Johnson says. “It’s absolutely a problem from our perspective. We call it time card fraud… My advice to management is to begin to document their absences and if you are a whistleblower within that organization then keep a log of that individual employee’s attendance,” Johnson says.

To view an example telecommuting policy, click here.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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