The Española City Council voted 7-1 to fire City Manager David Valdez at its Tuesday meeting amid two separate investigations into alleged theft from a city vault and discrepancies in his accounting in Colorado City, Colo., where he previously worked as district manager.
While Valdez has not been named as a suspect in the April theft of more than $18,500 from the Española Utilities Department, current Colorado City District Manager James Eccher said the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating the theft, called the District July 5. He declined to comment further.
Senior Counsel for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office Matt Baca said Sunday the investigation is “highly active” but no charges have been filed at this time.
City Attorney A.J. Salazar wrote in an email Monday to city employees that Valdez was placed on administrative leave July 5, was banned from city property and should not contact city employees.
Valdez appeared at the Council meeting Tuesday night, escorted by interim police chief Roger Jimenez, to make his case to the Council in an executive session. The councilors met behind closed doors for about two hours, bringing Valdez in for about 30 minutes.
Immediately after the session they voted unanimously to extend his suspension, and then they voted to terminate his employment, with only Councilor Robert Seeds voting against the motion to fire.
In a brief interview during the executive session, Valdez said he was not guilty. He did not address specific allegations.
“Everything is not what it seems,” he said. “There is no loyalty here.”
He left immediately after his termination and could not be reached for further comment. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment in the days prior to the meeting.
Valdez began as Española city manager April 1, less than two weeks before former Utilities Department employee Nadine Trujillo discovered the missing checks and cash April 12. Trujillo alleged in an interview Tuesday that Valdez separately asked both her and Department Cashier Anna Hall about the locations of cameras in the area on the day of the theft.
Hallway security footage shows Valdez entered the Utilities Department at least seven times on the day Española Police Department Public Relations Officer Brandon Archuleta said the money went missing. Valdez was never completely alone in the room.
At 12:49 p.m. he entered the Department office with Hall, leaving alone about four minutes later swinging what appears to be a small computer bag or briefcase at his side, which he had carried in under his arm earlier in the day.
In those four minutes, reflections in the glass partition between the office and the City Hall lobby show Valdez pacing several times from the front of the office, where Hall is seated at the front desk facing the lobby, to the back near where the money is kept.
He disappears toward the back and can be seen shortly after on the hallway camera poking his head out the door to look down the hall for a split second. About a minute later, a customer enters the lobby and appears to deposit a check with Hall, who faces toward the man in the lobby for the whole interaction. About a minute-and-a-half into Hall’s interaction with the man, Valdez is seen leaving with the bag on a hall camera.
Trujillo said a partition between the desk and the vault blocks the vault from direct view and the bank bag is very small. No security cameras face into the Department or the vault.
Neither Hall nor Valdez responded to multiple phone calls seeking comment by press time.
Minutes from a June 11 Colorado City Metropolitan District Board meeting show the Board held an executive session to receive legal advice concerning the former district manager, Valdez, and accounting for district funds. After the session, Board Member Robert Cook moved to call in the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office to investigate due to unanswered questions.
Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Gayle Perez said the investigation is ongoing and no further details are available.
Valdez submitted his resignation to the Board August 23, 2018, one week before an independent auditor visited the Board to present an audit of the District’s 2017 finances. Valdez’ resume submitted to Española stated he was City Manager until October. Contrary to its name, Colorado City is not a city and this was not his job title.
Cook said in a July 8 interview the “accounting anomalies” currently being investigated were not detailed in the 2017 audit, but rather a separate letter submitted to the Board by the auditor, which the Board voted to make confidential. Eccher denied a public records request for this letter.
The 2016 and 2017 audits do show decreases in the District’s net financial position of hundreds of thousands of dollars both years.
The morning before Valdez’s firing, Española Mayor Javier Sanchez declined to comment on specific personnel matters, emphasizing the importance of due process, but said the city government outsources background checks.
“What is going to be crucial is recognizing the mistakes that we have made,” he said. “We have an obligation and a duty to protect the citizens’, the taxpayers’, money from all sides. So we’re here to make sure that as a part of this process we recognize what needs to change and then show how we make those changes.”
He declined to give particular examples of changes, but said he wants a city government with improved procedures and checks and balances.
Sanchez declined to comment further on any matters following Valdez’ termination, citing advice from Salazar.
'Loose lips sink ships'
Trujillo said she was treated as a suspect in the theft by the Española Police Department, which investigated the theft until the Attorney General’s Office took over.
No official suspect was ever named.
Along with her resignation letter, Trujillo submitted the results of a certified polygraph examination stating there was less than a 0.1 percent chance she was lying about her innocence in the case.
Studies tend to estimate polygraph tests have about a 90 percent accuracy rate, but the results are inadmissible in many courts.
Trujillo alleged in her May 31 resignation letter that Valdez created a hostile work environment for the Utilities Department in the weeks following the theft.
Former head cashier Yvette Martinez, who was not present the day of the theft, resigned in early May.
Valdez placed Trujillo on paid administrative leave May 15, citing her behavior and work performance. She was served a notice stating the city was considering disciplinary action up to termination. Trujillo said in her letter she felt her resignation was forced upon her.
“I’ve lost everything because of it,” she said in an interview. “(Valdez) made my job so difficult.”
Trujillo alleged Valdez initially instructed her and other employees not to speak of the theft, and he allegedly said “loose lips sink ships.” Grants Manager Diahann Jacquez, who was present for the initial search for the money, said she does not remember Valdez’s instructions.
A police investigation did not begin until almost two weeks after the missing funds were discovered. According to a previous Rio Grande SUN article, Valdez said he notified now-former Interim Police Chief David Osuna the day of the theft.
There was no acting city manager as of Tuesday night.