After the Village of Tijeras paid out nearly $65,000 in reimbursements in retirement funds, State Auditor Wayne Johnson stopped at the village Tuesday seeking financial records.
The payout—in which Mayor Gloria Chavez got a check for $8,707.99 and former interim clerk Diane Klaus got one for $10,752—was based on a resolution the village passed in 2006 defining the village’s contribution to the Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA.
Combined, the mayor and clerk received nearly 30 percent of the total payout.
The 2006 resolution was signed only by Chavez and then-clerk Estefanie Muller; no member of the village council signed it.
Councilor Jake Bruton got a check as well, for $1,889.59.
The checks were issued in January, but January financial statements were provided to the council April 16—that’s when Bruton started asking questions about why the money had been paid out. Bruton said he thought the checks should not have been paid to elected officials in any case, as PERA rules exempt elected officials from mandatory contributions to the fund.
The Independent’s queries to PERA for information have gone unanswered.
The village pays its mayor and council, and elected officials can opt in or out of PERA, Bruton said, but must do so by filling out a form after each election.
He estimated the cost to the village could climb over $100,000, as the resolution would apply to every employee of the village, whether currently employed or not, since it was passed.
Johnson’s office initiated a special investigation into the matter “to determine if thousands of tax dollars recently given to Village of Tijeras employees were paid in compliance with all state and local laws and regulations.”
In a press release Tuesday, Johnson said there is reason to believe the payments were “improper or miscalculated, were done outside of normal accounting methods and skirted standard internal controls” as “the refunds appear to have been issued without anybody but the Mayor and the Village Interim Deputy Clerk knowing about them, which raises questions about other expenditures as well.”
Klaus was fired by a unanimous vote of the village council in January, but at the time Chavez said she would not remove her from her post; the village hired Jessica Sanchez as its clerk in April. Klaus had previously been interim clerk, acting clerk, and deputy clerk at various times.
The village’s regular attorney, Frank Coppler, recused himself on the matter; the village council then hired a lawyer, as did Chavez.
“The mayor on her own doesn’t have the authority to what amounts to a budget adjustment of 5 percent of the annual budget—that would have to be approved by the [village council] itself,” Johnson said in a Tuesday interview. “They also didn’t handle the disbursement properly.”
Johnson said that because the payouts “were in essence payroll tax” but paid without withholding, “it created a tax liability for each of the employees, plus a tax liability for the village,” which also makes contributions to employees’ retirement funds.
“It was poorly handled and reflects maybe a lack of training and understanding of both their authority and general accounting practices,” Johnson said.
Bruton has called the action “gross incompetence at best and corruption or fraud at worst” and said he will continue to push. “I want to make sure that public funds aren’t being misused,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not a personal little piggy bank.”
Johnson said next steps for his office will be first to pick up the financial records. “We’ll do the audit of that information and make a determination of how those actions played out and whether they are lawful. I’ve also agreed to go to their next council meeting and talk about things like internal controls and processes for appropriations.”
While Johnson said this is not the first time a municipality has had a problem of this nature, he added, “It’s troubling, and we have to go after it every time we see it.”