A retired Santa Fe police lieutenant is accusing top brass of retaliating against her while she was still on the force after she reported a now-retired deputy chief’s alleged time card irregularities and also raised the possibility of missing firearms and a stolen scope from a gun buyback program.
Michele Williams, who was the highest-ranking female officer at the Santa Fe Police Department until she retired in late November, laid out part of her allegations in a tort claim notice, which is a precursor to a lawsuit.
But the notice of intent to sue, filed with the city Nov. 8, only tells part of the retaliation Williams endured, her attorney, Thomas Grover, said Tuesday.
Less than two weeks after filing the tort claim notice in which she alleged retaliation stemming from a complaint against the former deputy chief, Williams alerted her superiors of possible missing firearms and a stolen scope from a gun buyback program involving the nonprofit New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, Grover said. The following day, he added, Williams was notified that she was the target of an internal affairs investigation.
The police department had stored dozens of firearms that New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence purchased in June until the nonprofit could retrieve them. The weapons were kept in the police department’s evidence room, which a recent review determined to be understaffed and in disarray.
Grover said Williams had been tasked with observing and confirming the destruction of the firearms. After the firearms were brought out of the evidence room to be picked up by the nonprofit, at least two guns and a scope appeared to be missing, Grover said.
Grover said Williams wanted to document the discrepancies, given problems within the evidence room.
“Because Santa Fe PD evidence is involved in receiving and then distributing the guns and Santa Fe PD evidence sort of has their tarnished reputation at this point, Michele does a paper trail, being above board,” Grover said.
“No good deed goes unpunished, so they then target her for investigation of misconduct as if she had custody of the guns at any point,” he added. “She didn’t have custody. All she was there was to be the supervisor to oversee that guns were received, catalogued and then distributed.”
In a recent interview, Miranda Viscoli, the nonprofit’s co-president, downplayed the incident, noting there was some initial confusion that was eventually cleared up.
“There wasn’t an issue; it just took us a while to figure it out,” she said. “Everything’s accounted for, and there was no issue in the end. ... I know that they’ve been having issues, but they handled ours fine.”
Williams declined to comment and referred inquiries to her attorney.
A spokeswoman for the city declined to comment on the allegations raised in the tort claim.
“The city cannot comment on pending litigation,” Lilia Chacon said in an email Tuesday.
In the tort claim, Williams said her 18-year law enforcement career with Santa Fe police “came to a halt” in August after she was summarily reassigned from her duties as an Operations Division lieutenant to what her attorney called a “dead-end” administrative job that didn’t previously exist.
“I don’t think that you can draw anything other than it being retaliatory because it was an adverse action when she lost what she had in favor of a diminished position,” Grover said. “She no longer had overtime, was no longer directly supervising squads of officers or their sergeants. She was essentially hidden away.”
Williams’ reassignment came after the city completed an investigation based on a complaint she filed against retired Deputy Chief Robert Vasquez “regarding improper, if not unlawful, acts,” according to the tort claim notice.
“This [complaint], conveyed by Ms. Williams to former City Manager Erik Litzenberg and other city employees, detailed concerns regarding recent time sheet submissions by [Vasquez] wherein it appeared he claimed time worked when in fact he had not reported for duty and that such concerns may be known by other high-ranking SFPD personnel,” the tort claim notice states.
Efforts to reach Vasquez for comment were unsuccessful. The police department contacted Vasquez on The New Mexican’s behalf Tuesday, but he did not return a message seeking comment.
Vasquez announced in August that he was entering into an early retirement contract with the city, not long after police revealed that key evidence in a first-degree murder case had gone missing, though he denied his decision to retire early was related to problems in the evidence room.
“Why am I retiring?” Vasquez wrote in an email at the time. “I have served 21 years in this profession and I am moving onto the next chapter in my profession.”
As the deputy chief in charge of administration, Vasquez had overseen the department’s evidence room. A court-ordered audit of evidence in the homicide case found 14 violations of the department’s evidence-handling policies and procedures and a follow-up review commissioned by the city generated a scathing report and a corrective action plan the police department is in the process of implementing.
Williams filed the complaint against Vasquez in December 2018, nearly a year before her retirement.
“The investigation goes on for months in true Santa Fe PD fashion, where nothing is done quickly unless it serves the interests of the administration or the command staff,” Grover said.
On Aug. 21, eight months after filing the complaint against Vasquez, Williams received notice her allegations weren’t sustained.
“But we don’t know what the investigation shows,” Grover said, adding the city denied a public records request for the findings of the investigation.
Grover said the city cited several exemptions under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.
“They just threw a giant spitball on the wall … to see what would stick to keep from having to produce those records,” Grover said.
The same day Williams received notice her complaint against Vasquez wasn’t sustained, Grover said, she was reassigned without notice or explanation.
“Even with some of the department’s directories, she’s essentially scrubbed from the books,” he said.
In the notice of intent to sue — which states that Williams also is asserting claims under the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act — Grover told the city his client was open to “pre-litigation settlement discussions.”
The city initially requested an extension to Grover’s Nov. 15 deadline for those discussions.
“During the period of this extension, things blew up with the gun buyback inventory and then she got named as a target” of another internal affairs investigation, Grover said.
“They never provided us any sort of formal dialogue letter or agreement to discuss settlement,” he added. “It was sort of like the door got shut, and litigation is going to ensue — and litigation is going to ensue on multiple fronts.”