A shady past can come back to haunt someone, especially when that person is looking for a job. That’s especially true in the public sector, which in most circumstances bars convicted felons from obtaining high-level employment. That’s created problems for Elizabeth Martin, an employee with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC), and her boss, PRC Chairman Sandy Jones. Late this July, Jones’ predecessor, Tony Schaefer, filed separate complaints with the PRC and the State Attorney General’s Office, alleging the hiring of Martin was illegal. Schaefer states that Jones knew of Martin’s past, which included convictions for embezzlement from two labor unions, yet hired her anyway. But some skeptics believe this move to be political payback in disguise.
Nobody disputes the fact that Martin, 56, a resident of the Albuquerque area, has a criminal history. In 1984, she pleaded guilty to embezzling $18,000 from an Albuquerque hospital where she worked as a controller. She later worked as an administrative assistant to Democratic Governor Bruce King, whose 1994 pardon restored her right to vote. Unfortunately, old habits died hard. During August 1998-January 2000, Martin allegedly embezzled a combined $68,743 from a pair of Albuquerque labor unions, the New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council and Local 495 of the International Association of Iron Workers. On various occasions she forged checks, pocketed collected dues, and made unauthorized credit card expenditures. She pleaded guilty in federal court in August 2003 and the following March received a sentence of four months in prison and three years of supervised release. Records show Martin was employed continuously as a constituent service representative in the State Senate chief clerk’s office from early 2000 until the end of 2006. That’s when Jones hired her.
Tony Schaefer isn’t pleased about the last part. His lawsuit cites a New Mexico law barring any public official from employing “as a deputy or assistant any person convicted of a felonious or infamous crime, unless such person has been pardoned.” Any official who “knowingly” violates the law is guilty of a misdemeanor, subject to a fine of up to $500, and “shall be removed from office.” Jones responds that his hiring was legal and proper. He referred to a 1974 state statute, the Criminal Offender Employment Act, which states that criminal convictions must not be considered an “automatic bar to obtaining public employment.” Jones said this law “clearly trumps the one that Tony’s citing.” Still, the law does allow public agencies to refuse employment if the criminal conviction “directly relates to the particular employment” or if the agency determines “that the person so convicted has not been sufficiently rehabilitated to warrant the public trust.”
Do the facts override the applicability of the 1974 law in this case? One can’t really know for now. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has jurisdiction over the utility, telecommunications, motor carrier and insurance industries. That covers a lot of territory, any of which could involve the two unions in question. And “sufficiently rehabilitated” is a phrase open to interpretation. It’s not out of the question that Schaefer’s suit is motivated by political payback. He chaired the PRC for four years ending in 2002. During the course of a commission meeting held Tuesday, August 4, at least one person suggested he is motivated by a desire to serve again. “For the record, I’m not running for office,” Schaefer retorted, though adding that he might change his mind “if this doesn’t get worked out.” Meanwhile, Martin has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the allegations. If she returns to her job, she’s not likely to steal again. Too many people are watching.