A former employee of the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority is suing the agency under the state Whistleblower Protections Act, alleging he was forced to resign in 2020 after he spoke against nearly $500,000 in project funds that hadn’t gone through the proper approval procedures.
Jeffrey Eaton, who worked as the authority’s funds program manager, says in his lawsuit, filed last week in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, he was asked to “straighten out” a budget issue on a project at Los Niños Elementary School in Las Vegas, N.M. What he discovered, his complaint says, was an “unusual entry” in the project management system that increased the construction funding by $496,421.
The Public School Facilities Authority, tasked with overseeing all funds tied to construction projects at the school, must ensure increases are approved by the New Mexico Public School Capital Outlay Council, the suit says.
However, it adds, no such approval for the Los Niños funding boost ever took place.
Financial staff at the authority were unaware of the increase, the complaint says, but were being urged to complete a purchase order for a local construction company on the project. When he spoke out, Eaton alleges, he was ordered to resign.
Eaton’s suit seeks reinstatement to his position as well as two times his back pay with interest, special damages, court costs and attorney’s fees.
Authority Director Marticia Casias, who is named as a defendant along with former Director Jonathan Chamblin, said she hadn’t seen the complaint, but she denied the Los Niños project ever saw a budget increase and said Eaton was not fired or ordered to resign.
“We never had a budget increase,” Casias said. “We never asked the council for more money. Where that came from, I don’t know.”
Eaton’s lawsuit says when he questioned whether the increase had gone through the proper approval channels, authority officials said it was just an adjustment from an accounting error.
The lawsuit also raises concerns that email correspondence on the purchase order between Franken Construction and authority officials included state Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, in “an attempt to politically pressure” staff to create the purchase order.
Eaton’s attorney, Jacob Candelaria, who is an independent state senator from Albuquerque, said the nature of the political pressure remains unknown, but thousands of private contractors interact with the authority each year.
“The PSFA is sort of this little-known but incredibly important state agency,” Candelaria said.
Eaton wrote about the project and the questionable budget increase in Facebook posts and also voiced concern at a meeting about the project. Afterward, the complaint says, he was “ordered to resign” by then-Director Chamblin. He left the agency in October.
Las Vegas City Schools Superintendent Laryssa Archuleta did not return phone calls to comment on the school project or the lawsuit.
Casias said the project initially was focused on infrastructure like drainage and parking lots and later expanded to include additional classrooms.
“I do know for a fact that we didn’t exceed the budget or spend money we were not authorized to spend, and he was not fired,” she said of Eaton.
The suit was filed one day ahead of the two-year statute of limitations to bring claims under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Candelaria said Eaton previously worked at the Legislative Council Service. Since he left the Public School Facilities Authority, the attorney added, Eaton has been unable to find consistent work in the state and is now a bus driver in Albuquerque.