The former records custodian for the Albuquerque Police Departmentfiled a whistleblower lawsuit Monday against several high-profile employees of the city of Albuquerque and its police department that claims he was forced by the police department to hide information from the public and was fired because he reported the misconduct.
Reynaldo Chavez, who was APD’s records custodian for four years before he was placed on leave from his position in April and subsequently fired in August, filed the suit, which claims the city violated the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act and breached Chavez’s contract.
In the lawsuit, Chavez argues that city leaders – specifically APD Chief Gorden Eden, Assistant Chief Robert Huntsman, supervisor Bill Slausen and former City Attorney Kathryn Levy – directed him to circumvent Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) law regarding several cases. The city of Albuquerque and APD are also named as defendants in the suit.
Chavez said in September in a notice to file the lawsuit that he was told to find “creative exceptions to prevent the production of records” by the defendants named in the lawsuit.
If Chavez’s claims are true, the misconduct would be blatant violations of public records law by some of the city’s top brass.
ALLEGED PUBLIC RECORDS RULEBREAKING BLATANT
In the lawsuit filed Monday, Chavez says that city and APD brass would decide which IPRA requests were “high profile” and would be directed for him to handle. Media requests, civilian requests and requests from lawyers were handled by two subsidiaries of his, as well as three employees contracted by APD from Select Staffing, Inc.
Some of the high-profile cases he handled were the Mary Han case, cases involving Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, APD use of force cases, APD officer-involved shootings – including the James Boyd case, the Jaquise Lewis case, the Cedric Greer case and Jacob Grant’s, among several others.
The lawsuit says Chavez would have to gather all the records for those cases from multiple departments, then was required to seek approval from higher-ups to release the documents, even though they were required to be released under IPRA law.
The suit says the defendants would then tell Chavez to deny, withhold, obstruct, conceal or destroy records from being produced for various reasons.
Among the ways the lawsuit says the skirting would happen: Chavez would be told to deny requests without reason. It says Levy “frequently stated simply, ‘there are items we just will not release and we will just pay the fines or lawsuits.'”
At other times, the suit says, APD or city brass would tell Chavez to “creatively identify an allowable exception” to IPRA “in an effort to ‘baffle’ or frustrate the requester,” – and even try to find exceptions to the law to “arbitrarily delay…without justification” or altogether deny requests.
In one instance, according to the suit, Chavez was told by brass to overproduce materials to force requesters to sift through unnecessary material. Levy once told Chavez to give a KRQE reporter a box of records having nothing to do with her request in regards to the Department of Justice’s investigation into APD, according to the lawsuit.
Another portion of the lawsuit says APD and city brass chose when and to whom certain records would be released – often sending out “high profile” records to requesting parties and select media organizations just before weekends or holidays.
“Such coordination was designed to take advantage of reduced media exposure regarding the released materials,” the suit reads.
LAWSUIT MENTIONS SPECIFIC HIGH-PROFILE CASES
Chavez’s lawsuit goes on to cite specific high-profile cases in which APD and city brass specifically and blatantly broke public records law by ordering him to only released portions of the material required to be released under law.
Among those cases were the James Boyd shooting, former Chief Ray Schultz’s relationship with TASER International, public protests following the Boyd shooting in which plainclothes officers filmed citizens tied to previous officer shootings, Mary Han’s death and IPRA requests from civilians Silvio Dell-Angela and Charles Arasim – both who are often critical of APD.
In each case, Chavez says Eden and/or Levy, along with others, specifically directed him not to release certain documents or information that should have been released under IPRA law.
Chavez says he told the defendants that those actions would be in violation of the law and feared any legal matters that would come from breaking them would come back to him, but was allegedly told to do so anyway.
He signed a sworn affidavit in August saying he believed all the records relating to the Han case had been destroyed since the database was out of his possession.
SUIT CLAIMS PURPOSEFUL ENCRYPTION, SKIRTING OF DOJ
Chavez also chalks the brass’ actions up to “political calculations” in the lawsuit, saying they regularly tried to skirt IPRA law in order to not shed bad light on misconduct by city personnel or lose pending lawsuits against the city, among others.
The suit also says they purposely encrypted audio and video so requestors could not access the records given to them and even concealed records from the U.S. Department of Justice, which did and continues to investigate the Albuquerque Police Department under a settlement agreement.
CHAVEZ’S TEAM HAD ISSUES; HE CLAIMS HE WAS COLLATERAL DAMAGE
Chavez was one of three employees from the police department’s public records division who was placed on leave in April. APD said at the time it was looking into allegations of unprofessional conduct, workplace safety and inadequate supervision involving Chavez and the two others.
But Chavez said at the time he had butted heads with his supervisor. His attorney at the time said she believed APD had violated his due process rights in its investigation into him.
Monday’s filing says the other two workers and three other contracted employees had multiple instances of repeatedly calling in sick without doctor’s notes, typographical errors in responses to requests, and having sexual relations with APD personnel, among others that caused him concern.
The suit says Chavez met with one of the contracted employees to tell her she needed a doctor’s note for a sick day. Hours later, the suit says, she complained to APD’s Force Investigation Team that Chavez had verbally, physically and sexually abused her.
Shortly thereafter, according to the suit, Chief Eden placed him on administrative leave.
A subsequent report on the investigation into the matter found Chavez tolerated sexual harassment among his subordinates and ridiculed APD, among other findings Chavez and his lawyer call “unsubstantiated.”
He was fired Aug. 20 and Javier Urban was named acting records custodian at the department.
Then, the woman who complained and initiated the investigation into him was fired for the reasons Chavez had already brought up as concerns, according to the suit.
Chavez says that the many alleged violations that he outlned in the suit, which led to his wrongful firing, constitute violations of the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act. The suit also claims civil conspiracy when the defendants worked together to discredit and retaliate against him.
He also claims the database he worked to build with all information regarding IPRA cases has likely been destroyed intentionally, citing a statement from APD spokesman Tanner Tixier saying it “doesn’t exist” and statements from the city that it has “taken steps to gather and preserve[d] the materials.”
The suit claims that since the city has known about a possible lawsuit since KOB’s report in May, the defendants “intended to disrupt or defeat a potential lawsuit as well as to cover up the facts that underline” the lawsuit, thus impacting Chavez’s ability to prove his case.
It also says that the city breached his contract by improperly firing him.
He is seeking damages from the alleged whistleblower violation, damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, lawyer fees and any further compensation the court would allow.
City Attorney Jessica Hernandez released the following statement to KOB in September when more information was released about the pending lawsuit:
“The City stands prepared to defend against these allegations and claims that records or evidence have been compromised. The city has already taken steps to collect, preserve, and analyze these records and we expect those allegations to be refuted in court. “