Senate passes protection bill

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

The state Senate once again has passed a bill designed to protect government employees from retaliation for reporting official wrongdoing — something backers said Wednesday is long overdue in New Mexico.

Sen. Sue Wilson-Beffort, R-Sandia Park, sponsor of Senate Bill 96, told fellow senators that had the bill been in effect a few years ago, an ill-fated $90 million investment by the Education Retirement Board with Vanderbilt Financial might have never happened.

The Vanderbilt investment is at the center of a lawsuit filed by former ERB investment officer Frank Foy. He alleges that officials of Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, including the governor’s former Chief of Staff Dave Contarino, pressured the board to make the investment. Richardson has said neither he nor his administration is guilty of any wrongdoing. No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the investment.

Under the bill that cleared the Senate on Wednesday, a state or local government worker who faces retaliation could sue for damages, get his or her job back and be awarded back pay with interest. Workers who testify as part of an investigation into wrongdoing also would be protected against retaliation.

Wilson said that more than two dozen states have similar laws on the books.

Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, said the bill is long overdue. Federal employees have such protections, she said. State and local government employees deserve it also, Feldman said during debate on the bill.

The measure passed 38-2, with Sens. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, and Phil Griego, D-San Jose, in the minority.

Sanchez, the Senate majority leader, argued that the bill has a potentially large financial impact on the court system and should have been referred to the Finance Committee.

Griego expressed concerns about the bill encouraging people to file frivolous suits.

SB96 now goes to the House, which has passed similar measures in recent years.

In 2007, the last time a whistleblower bill made it through both chambers of the Legislature, Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed it.

Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said Wednesday that the 2007 bill was vetoed for several reasons, including the fact that it contained a provision allowing unlimited punitive damages if a whistleblower successfully won a case.

But apparently that won’t be a problem this year.

Richardson asked for a whistleblower-protection law in his call for the current session, Gallegos said. In his State of the State address on the opening day of the session, Richardson said “Whistleblower protections to shield employees from retaliation for reporting fraud, waste or abuse” is one of “several vital reforms (that) have been put off for too long.”

Wilson’s bill, Gallegos said, looks similar to a House whistleblower bill, HB165 sponsored by Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, which Richardson is backing. A fiscal impact report says the House bill is identical to the one that passed the Senate.