Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two SEC Employees Placed On Unpaid Leave

By John Severance

Two Socorro Electric Cooperative employees have been placed on unpaid leave for an indefinite time as the SEC appointed a committee to investigate certain financial irregularities.
That’s what came out of a special meeting of the Board of Trustees on Friday night. The meeting was restricted to personnel matters and it was discussed under executive session.
Co-op attorney Dennis Francish called the Mountain Mail Monday morning to read the following statement.
“A committee was appointed by the President of Socorro Electric Cooperative to investigate certain financial irregularities reported under the whistle blower policy of the cooperative.
“Two SEC employees have been placed on unpaid leave for an indefinite period while the investigation proceeds. Until the committee completes its investigation, there will be no further statements from the Board of Trustees or the cooperative regarding this matter.”
When asked if he had any more details, Francish said, “I am just the messenger.”
Trustee Donald Wolberg, the head of the investigation committee, said Tuesday the two employees are general manager Polo Pineda and accountant Kathy Torres. Pineda has been general manager since 2003 and Torres has worked for the SEC for 22 years.
Pineda and Torres could not be reached for comment.
The committee met for the third time in two and one-half weeks Tuesday. Wolberg said the meeting lasted five and one-half hours and he hoped to have another committee meeting before all the trustees meet next week.
When asked what was discussed at Tuesday’s meeting, Wolberg said, “I can’t tell you. We need to find out more.”
On the committee were Wolberg, and fellow trustees Luis Aguilar, Leo Cordova, Leroy Anaya and Prescilla Mauldin.
Wolberg said Richard Lopez will be the interim manager and Eileen Latassa will be the office manager. Other department heads will be David Montoya, Francis Herron and Sophie Chavez.
“We are not attorneys or judges and everybody is innocent until proven guilty,” Wolberg said. “But what’s most important is that we make a seemless transition as soon as possible. We have a very experienced staff and there will be no diminishment of services for our members.”
Wolberg said the committee was formed after anonymous letters were circulated around the community. One was addressed to the Mountain Mail and the other was posted on the website.
Both letters, apparently written by an SEC employee, complained of no management at the SEC and that the employees needed help. The letters also referred to embezzlement.
“We realized we had to do something when the letters came out and we realized the employees needed help and they referred to themselves as we,” Wolberg said. “We had to give confidence to the people who are coming forward under the whistleblower act. We want to make sure our members and our employees can get through this difficult interim period. As a committee, we are going to get to the bottom of this.”
Wolberg said the committee will ask for statements from trustees and former trustees.
“In fact, I would volunteer to be the first in line,” Wolberg said. “Of course, nobody is obligated to give a statement. But as a committee, we are going to move ahead.”
Wolberg also wanted to assure the members that records at the co-op premises have been secured as security guards were posted at the SEC facility over the weekend
“We are following legal advice and we are in a bit of uncharted territory in that we are investigating ourselves,” Wolberg said. “We can only report what we find and think it means. We have to do what’s best for the members.”
Wolberg said his committee will present its findings to the board at its next meeting.
When the committee concludes its investigation, Wolberg said he was uncertain of what the next step would be in terms of legal ramifications.
“That is up to attorneys,” said Wolberg, who also said he would welcome a forensic audit of the SEC books.
“The driving force is what is best for the members. As far as I am concerned, trustees are on the bottom of the list.”
At the special meeting called Friday, which was held under executive session, many thought the trustees would be discussing Torres’ claim to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. The Mountain Mail received Torres’ complaint to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions in an unmarked envelope last month.
Torres wrote that she had been verbally and sexually harassed by trustee Charlie Wagner.
She wrote, “He has done such things as accuse me of fraud, which I believe was racially motivated as he has made racial comments about Hispanics. He has made comments in Board Meeting to other members that they are ‘hiding behind my skirt.’ I believe when the board of directors is reduced from 10 to 5, Mr. Wagner will have me fired.
“I did file a formal complaint against Mr. Wagner for sexual harassment and for sex discrimination. Nothing was resolved and I believe that a lot of the harassment is retaliation for filing this complaint.”
The next regularly scheduled meeting is Aug. 25 and a meeting to discuss the audit is the following day.

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