Payments of about $65,000 issued wrongly a year ago to employees of the Village of Tijeras—including the mayor—have not been paid back by the end of the year as required by the State Auditor.
Mayor Gloria Chavez and Deputy Clerk Diane Klaus in January 2018 issued checks to themselves and 11 other village employees totaling $64,423.65 without approval of village council.
Chavez personally received a check for $8,707.99; Klaus received a check in the amount of $10,752.58.
At the urging of councilor Jake Bruton, the State Auditor did a preliminary inquiry and found cause for further investigation. The State Auditor at the time, Wayne Johnson, then launched a special audit to determine if the disbursement was “proper and in accordance with state law.”
The issue stems from a discovery by Klaus of a document, dated Jan. 9, 2006, which stated that the village “shall pick up member contributions” to the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico (PERA).
In a document dated Jan. 27, 2006, PERA “approved the Village of Tijeras’ resolution 191 … for purposes of determining tax treatment under the Internal Revenue Code.” In spite of that, the village had not implemented the change.
According to the special audit report, dated June 11, 2018, “It was the contention of the Mayor that the Village had withheld excess PERA contributions from employees’ paychecks from 2006 to 2017, and that she and other current Village employees were entitled to refunds of the excess withholdings.”
Chavez told The Independent, “What was translated in the resolution by my staff was that it was overpayment and so after researching with the people from PERA and looking at the resolution I did make the decision to go ahead and pay staff back what had been overpaid. I did not take it to council. I should have.”
“At that time council was postponing meetings,” she continued, “because they were trying to fire Diane [Klaus]. That went to court in June or July and the court ruled that the council could not fire Diane.”
The special audit states, “These findings indicate that the Village appears to have violated the state’s Anti-Donation Clause … and the Internal Revenue Code among others [sic] laws. Additionally, the Mayor and acting Village Clerk may have violated the criminal provisions of the Governmental Conduct Act.”
There were 14 findings in the special audit, which concluded that the village lacks safeguards against fraud, waste and abuse. It referred its findings to the Attorney General’s office for a “review and determination of whether criminal prosecutions are warranted.”
The Independent spoke with David Carl, spokesman for the AG, who said, “We are investigating it right now. It’s ongoing.” Further comment was declined.
The special audit recommended, regarding the monies improperly disbursed that, “The Village must recoup the funds. The employees will pay back as much as they can now and begin wage garnishment their first paycheck in July and continuing till fully paid back in the amounts equal to what it will take to fully reimburse the village by 12/31/18.”
At this writing, no money has been repaid by anyone and no checks are being garnished.
“The biggest problem here is that no one will willfully return the money,” Bruton said. “That’s what I’m concerned with.”
The Independent asked Chavez if she was willing to pay back any money that she owes. She replied, “Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. Why would I keep money that has been defined it does not belong to you?”
Bruton explained that a court order is necessary to garnish a person’s paycheck. In order to go to court, the Village must have exact figures produced by an audit other than the State Auditor’s.
The next step for the village is to hire an accounting firm to conduct an audit that provides dollar amounts owed by each employee who received a check improperly. Then the village can go to court requesting the garnishment of those employees’ wages.
At its village council meeting Jan. 14, the council took up the issue of hiring an accounting firm to conduct the audit. Two firms were cited for consideration, Jaramillo Accounting Group LLC and Southwest Accounting Solutions.
Proposals from both were available. No representative of either was present.
Bruton requested the RFP to review the scope of work. Chavez said it was not available for the meeting and suggested a postponement of the issue until the next meeting when it would be available.
Councilor Maxine Wilson moved to postpone the matter until the next session. Bruton seconded and the vote was unanimous to approve it.
Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at [email protected]