ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Two high-ranking Children, Youth & Families Department employees raised concerns about the state agency, including the use of the message-disappearing app Signal. Then, they were fired. Cliff Gilmore was hired as the public information officer at CYFD in November. His wife was hired in December to lead CYFD’s newly-formed office of children’s rights. They were both fired on May 6.

In late April, CYFD came under fire for the use of Signal, an app in which messages among staff disappear. Some raised concerns about CYFD potentially violating the Inspection of Public Records Act by deleting public documents. Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock defended its use on April 27. “We are not destroying anything that could be considered a public or public document,” Blalock said last month. “Anything that we are required to keep under IPRA, we are absolutely retaining.”

Before this went public, a high-ranking official within the department said he raised several concerns about the use of the app. On April 22, CYFD Public Information Officer Cliff Gilmore sent a letter to Blalock that said in part: “In light of word of an impending media query into CYFD’s use of the Signal app, I am formally recommending use of the app for official CYFD communication and on official government devices be halted immediately.”

In the letter, Gilmore argued that the use of the app is detrimental to the public’s trust in government institutions.

In an emailed response to Gilmore, Blalock argued that the use of the app was carefully vetted by attorneys and leadership and encouraged Gilmore to talk with CYFD’s privacy experts about his concerns. “If we were communicating, especially while folks are working remotely under unsecured channels talking about children and families, we wouldn’t be doing our moral or legal obligation in order to keep that information secure and private,” Blalock said on April 27.

Gilmore said that the Signal app was just one of several concerns he raised about how the department was handling things. He submitted a complaint of retaliation on April 2, but he did not even get confirmation that his complaint had been received until the end of the month. The following week, Gilmore said there was a meeting with cabinet leadership who told him he served at the pleasure of the governor, and his employment was terminated. His wife, Debra, also raised concerns about several issues, including Signal. She was fired at the same time.

The governor’s office said that exempt employees like Gilmore can be terminated at any time for any reason, and the administration does not comment on personnel matters. CYFD said the Gilmores were provided the opportunity to discuss their concerns, but that those concerns were purely about public perception and not on careful legal evaluation.

CYFD has since quit using the Signal app. Gilmore said he has more than 25 years of experience in communications and has not had any negative reviews until joining CYFD. The following is the agency’s full statement:

The Children, Youth & Families Department utilized secure messaging platforms such as Signal and paid encrypted Zoom accounts to communicate quickly and effectively during the pandemic when normal work environments were no longer safe.  The Searchlight story made clear that we consulted with CYFD’s attorneys, outside lawyers, Department of Information Technology tech and privacy lawyers. Even the Attorney General’s Office found no violations of IPRA. The concerns raised by then-PIO Cliff Gilmore were purely about public perception and not based on a careful legal evaluation of IPRA or records retention requirements.

The primary use of Signal was to mimic in-person or phone-based meetings, allowing state employees to immediately work on an issue as it came to light. Some examples of how Signal was used include:

Children who contracted COVID or whose caregivers came down with COVID were able to be moved to safe locations to recover or provide a safe environment when they could not be cared for by their resource parents who were also battling COVID, some of whom were hospitalized. Signal and paid, encrypted Zoom environments provided a secure setting to connect those children to temporary arrangements and because the needs of each child are different, we could communicate securely and immediately to find placements that fit each child’s needs. Every placement move was properly recorded in CYFD’s system of record, FACTS, just like any other placement move.

As part of the pandemic response, CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock led Emergency Food and Shelter Operations (ESF6) for the state. Using messaging apps like Signal allowed the state to respond to issues in real time as they became known to ESF6. More than 26 million pounds of food and a similar amount of water was delivered to all corners of the state, from the Navajo Nation after they closed their border to Jal in Southeast New Mexico when the only store within miles faced supply issues and empty shelves. The state coordinated more than 35,000 nights of shelter for individuals affected by COVID who could not recover safely at home, reducing spread, and issues with our hotel shelter programs were easily resolved via Signal and Zoom in hours versus days. To paint a narrative that these decisions were not recorded or maintained properly is simply untrue.

The Gilmores were provided the time and opportunity to discuss their concerns with our privacy and security experts and were offered follow up opportunities if they continued to have concerns. CYFD supports a culture of accountability and will continue to be open to discussing concerns that are raised and, if legitimate, finding appropriate solutions.  CYFD continues to promote an environment that is collaborative with the best interests of the children of New Mexico as the primary focus.

Charlie Moore-Pabst, CYFD Acting PIO