SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The longtime director of archaeology at the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) is suing the governor and the department secretary over his firing. He claims his termination is discrimination and retaliation.

The lawsuit lists 16 counts against its defendants: including charges of gender, race, and age discrimination; violations of due process and equal rights protections under the 14th Amendment and of the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act; and wrongful termination, among others.

Dr. Eric Blinman served as the director of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies for 17 years, but he believes this experience is part of the reason he was fired in February. “Because he’s an older white male who basically threatens her status, I presume,” says Merit Bennett, attorney for Blinman. Bennett believes the state’s Cultural Affairs Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego targeted Blinman because he questioned her leadership.

Story continues below:

“She has undertaken steps to basically create a pretext for his termination and has terminated him essentially without cause to the detriment of the department and our state,” Bennett says.

The federal lawsuit claims it all started in July of 2021 when Blinman asked to be allowed to vet and hire employees who would work for him. Blinman says the department has been short-staffed for a while. “Really since July of 2021, I’ve been working something like 60 or more hours a week just to try to maintain the basic requirements of the office,” Blinman says. However, he says his request to hire help was denied.

The lawsuit says without being able to hire help, it would hinder his ability to do his job well and give Garcia y Griego—with the governor’s backing—the pretext to fire him.

In 2022, Blinman reported to his Human Resources department again: this time, about a rumor he heard about Garcia y Griego having an affair with a subordinate. “He reported that in confidence not knowing whether it was appropriate or not, feeling it may not be, to the Human Resources Department. In confidence. And apparently, that confidence was breached,” Bennett says.

On February 13, while conducting an archaeological study underneath the floorboards of the Palace of the Governors, he was summoned for a meeting and fired. “There’s no obvious performance qualification reason for why I would be terminated,” Blinman says, “The coincidence suggests that there may have been cause and effect; that that was in her mind a final straw—disloyalty or insubordination—even though I feel what I did followed procedure absolutely perfectly.”

Blinman says he is proceeding with this lawsuit in the hopes that it will generate change: “For me personally, the end goal is to correct a behavior that is clearly inappropriate within state government.”

Bennett also contests the idea that Blinman was an at-will employee. “Just to clarify, Mr. Blinman was not an at-will employee. Because there was a written policy and procedure that had to be followed to discipline him or terminate him. It’s a semi-contractual relationship, but it is a contract that binds the state as well as Dr. Blinman,” Bennett says, adding: Even an at-will employee, in our state, cannot be discriminated against because he or she falls within one of these protected categories…Your age, your race, your disability, your gender…”

“My entire career has been devoted to the state of New Mexico to the pursuit of preservation and interpretation of our incredible history…I would like to be able to pursue archaeology in my retirement, supporting my office in the pursuit of projects that do not have client support…” Blinman says.

“Right now, I’m a complete pariah. I’m totally exiled. And so, my office doesn’t have access to any of my expertise, any of my experience, and I feel I’ve got decades left to contribute,” Blinman says.

News 13 reached out to the Department of Cultural Affairs for comment on this lawsuit. A spokesperson sent us a statement, reading:

“These allegations against Cabinet Secretary Garcia y Griego are both untrue and unfounded. I will reiterate what has been stated on multiple occasions and remains relevant: while no reason was required by the statute for dismissal of at-will employees, there was sound and carefully considered reasoning behind the termination of Dr. Blinman.”

Daniel Zillmann, spokesperson for the NM Department of Cultural Affairs

News 13 also reached out to the Governor’s Office for comment on this lawsuit. A spokesperson sent us a statement as well, reading:

“The allegations made in this lawsuit, including any reference to the governor being directly involved in this personnel action, are completely false.”

Maddy Hayden, director of communications for the Office of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham