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Unhealthy Department

Changes in the state Dept. of Health’s leadership follow months of scrutiny

May 23, 2012, 12:00 am

“DOH is sick and only you can make it better,” says a robovoice at the end of a voicemail greeting on the local Bullying, Abuse, Retaliation and Fraud Tip Hotline. The unofficial hotline, created last fall for the New Mexico Department of Health employees, is just one of many examples of ongoing dysfunction at the state’s largest agency. 


The BARF hotline is part of a website run by someone posting under the pseudonym “Johnathan Pub-lix,” presumably a DOH employee (Pub-lix is mayor of the Harold Runnels building, DOH’s headquarters, on social media website Foursquare). His website—NMDOHcrisis.com, to which even NMDOH.com redirects—features constant criticism of DOH’s management under Cabinet Secretary Catherine Torres and claims the problems won’t evaporate “until change comes to DOH including Dr. Torres’ removal.” 


Some of that change came just last week. On May 18, DOH moved around seven of its senior leadership team members and drafted a new organizational chart. A memo from Torres to employees details the new setup but omits two notable resignations: those of Deputy Secretary for Programs Wally Vette and Chief Medical Officer Erin Bouquin. 


Vette tells SFR that he left for personal reasons he’d rather not go into. Bouquin couldn’t be reached by SFR before press time, but recently told the Santa Fe New Mexican that she was forced out after making public comments encouraging teenage condom use. In another notable move, Jim Green, deputy secretary of administrative services, was named deputy secretary of programs. Former DOH Secretary Afredo Vigil says it’s rare to see changes at the deputy secretary level, where they must be approved by the governor, although he says it did happen once in his three-and-a-half year tenure.


In an email to SFR, DOH spokeswoman Aimee Barabe writes that the shakeup was “a simple reorganization to ensure that all aspects of DOH continue to run efficiently.” 


But over the past year, vacancies have been on the rise at DOH, with critics blaming poor management for pushing people out. While DOH maintains that everything’s fine, labor unions claim the department’s attempt to outsource many jobs to the private sector has demoralized employees. 


But DOH’s problems extend much further. In December 2009, SFR published a blog post in which state Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Bernalillo, lamented DOH’s hiring of 91 new employees under a hiring freeze, many of whom were either friends or family members of then-current DOH employees.


“I have been called by people who have been demoralized by the nepotism that has been going on in hiring non-emergency people,” Beffort told SFR at the time. 


The blog post generated 145 comments expressing gratitude (“I can tell you that this is a LONG TIME COMING,” one reads), defensiveness (“Every citizen of the State of New Mexico should be EXRTEMELY upset that this time and energy is being wasted on stupid allegations”) and downright childishness (“YOU ARE ALL A BUNCH OF GOSSIPING BITCHES”). 


Since then, the agency has been marked by lawsuits over fraud and nepotism, an unpopular new cabinet secretary and mass resignations. SFR has covered the unending dysfunction nearly every step of the way.


Below is a timeline of DOH events over the past two years.


TIMELINE


—August 2009: Grants Management Bureau Deputy Director Bob Ortiz alleges a $1.7 million fraudulent transaction in DOH’s financing of the federal Women, Infants and Children program.

—Dec. 4, 2010: SFR runs blog post on alleged nepotistic hiring practices at DOH, generating 145 comments.

—Jan. 13, 2010: SFR runs a cover story on then-Business Operations Specialist Diane Moore’s allegations of nepotistic hiring and Ortiz’ allegations of fraud in the WIC program.

—Jan. 27, 2010: A routine state audit fails to reveal the $1.7 million fraud Ortiz alleged; State Auditor Hector Balderas tells SFR that a new review is necessary.

—January 2010: Moore is involuntarily transferred, losing all of her job responsibilities and access to DOH financial records. She complains to her superiors. After her superiors do nothing, Moore hires lawyer Diane Garrity.

—June 14, 2010: Garrity sends a letter to the State Personnel Office asking for the status of Moore’s complaint.

—June 18, 2010: SPO says Moore’s allegations are unfounded.

—June 21, 2010: Moore tells SFR that she’s going to court.

—Oct. 22, 2010: Moore finally files a lawsuit accusing DOH of violating the state’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act and the Whistleblower Protection Act.

—February 2011: New Gov. Susana Martinez appoints Las Cruces pediatrician Catherine Torres as Cabinet Secretary of DOH.

—Feb. 16, 2011: Ortiz tells SFR that since he went public with his fraud allegations a year prior, DOH has involuntarily moved him to a position with little responsibility. DOH denies his public records requests for minutes from meetings related to WIC.

—May 27, 2011: 1st Judicial District Court Judge Barbara Vigil dismisses two counts related to breach of Moore’s contract, but rules that Moore’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act allegations can move forward.

—July, 2011: The federal US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service conducts a financial management review, similar to an audit, of DOH’s handling of the WIC program from 2006-2009. It finds a $500,000 accounting error from fiscal year 2008, the same time period Ortiz alleges he was ordered to make a fraudulent transaction.

—Sept. 21, 2011: SFR reports on the federal audit; Ortiz maintains it was still fraud.

—Oct. 22, 2011: DOH settles in court with Moore for what lawyer Garrity calls a “large sum of money.”

—September-December, 2011
: All three full-time staffers on DOH’s medical cannabis program resign in a six-week period. Critics say it’s a result of the administration’s neglect of the program.

—December 2011: SFR reports on vacancy and intimidation problems under Torres’ management of DOH, generating an “open letter” from the “Collective Voice of DOH” that is heavily critical of Torres.

—January 2012: “Johnathan Pub-lix” launches NMDOHCrisis.com, a website dedicated to exposing wrongdoings at DOH. Pub-lix also sends multiple letters to all of New Mexico’s state lawmakers.

—January 2012: At a state House committee hearing, Rep. Lucky Varela, D-Santa Fe, questions Torres about Pub-lix’ “open letter” criticizing her leadership.

—January 2012: At the Roundhouse, Torres refuses to answer questions when SFR approaches her.

—May 2012: DOH restructures its senior leadership.

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