SANTA FE (KRQE) — A former deputy director at the Department of Health has filed a lawsuit claiming the state violated the Whistleblower Act, when he was fired for alleging fraud at the agency.
Robert Ortiz, who was a manager with the administrative services division at DOH, was placed on leave in Nov. 2011, while the department investigated the claims. He was fired six months later last month for "inappropriate and unprofessional conduct, disingenuous or irresponsible communication with the media and for creating a hostile work environment." Ortiz said he was on paid suspension the last six months, collecting $350 a day for not doing his job.
"I was fired because I went to the media," said Ortiz.
Ortiz said his firing stems from his interviews with a weekly paper, the Santa Fe Reporter, over the last two years. Ortiz claimed his supervisors at DOH were covering up fraud related to record-keeping with the state-run Women, Infant and Children Program. The program is funded by federal dollars and is supposed to help low-income families with food and nutrition.
"The record books were a mess," said Ortiz. "Every year, there was a chunk of money, a chunk of cost that was charged to the next year. (The state) ran out of money because they were paying cost from the previous years."
"That's a no-no by federal regulations," said Ortiz.
At issue is $1.7 million dollars that Ortiz said was spent in fiscal year 2008. However, the expenditures were recorded as fiscal year 2009 expenditures. When he brought the problem up to his supervisors and fixed it, Ortiz said they advised him to reverse the correction.
"We took money that we weren't entitled to in 2009 by taking 2008 expenses, and we justified that in the state accounting system. That's fraud," said Ortiz. "Once I fix it and somebody asks me to falsify state records, that's why I'll lose some sleep."
Ortiz said he only turned to the media after being retaliated against by his supervisors and being ignored by the Richardson and Martinez administrations. Now, he's suing the state for violating the Whistleblower Act.
"The system is set up basically to squash you like a bug if you go against those appointees in either administration," said Ortiz.
Officials at DOH said it doesn't comment on pending lawsuits. But in its firing letter, it accused Ortiz of hurting the agency's reputation. They said there were accounting mistakes but insist they were errors, not fraud.
A spokesperson for Gov. Susana Martinez said he did not recall Ortiz contacting the governor about the issue. But a governor's spokesperson said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service audited the WIC program in Sept. 2011 and found no instances of fraud.
Ortiz is asking for his $96,000 a year job back and double back pay for the days he has been fired.
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New Mexico is located in the southwestern region of the U.S. Inhabited by Native American populations for many centuries, New Mexico has also been part of Imperial Spain, part of Mexico, and a U.S. territory.