The public might have a short memory about the career of Ricky Serna, now acting Cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s labor agency.
A whistleblower like James Biggs never forgets.
Biggs was director of environmental sciences at Northern New Mexico College in Española when Serna was one of the school’s vice presidents. Biggs pointed out college administrators had misappropriated federal grants.
Biggs says Serna responded by threatening to take out a full-page newspaper advertisement to discredit him.
For Serna’s part, he said he doesn’t remember any details about clashes between college employees and administrators.
“I don’t. I just don’t recall all the this and the that,” Serna said.
After getting nowhere with the college’s staff, Biggs alerted outside agencies about the misuse of federal money. The U.S. Department of Education issued a written statement saying Biggs was correct.
Did he get a belated pat on the back from his employer for pinpointing violations of the rules on how taxpayers’ money could be spent? No, instead came a gut punch. The college, he said, denied him the tenured position he was on track to receive, a retaliatory move to harm him.
Biggs sued. The college eventually settled the case by paying him about $295,000.
Four other whistleblowers at the school also said they were retaliated against after exposing wrongdoing.
In all, they collected another $1 million in settlements or jury awards.
Serna resigned from the college in December 2015, telling me he decided it was time for the next chapter in his career. He quit a few days before then-Northern President Nancy “Rusty” Barceló announced she would step down as complaints of campus malfeasance escalated.
Biggs is one of several people who are upset because Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this year elevated Serna to acting secretary of the state Department of Workforce Solutions. He had been a deputy under Bill McCamley, the previous Cabinet secretary, who quit in April.
“It’s really taking the wind out of the sails of people who fought for so long to expose a level of corruption at the college. It’s disheartening,” Biggs said.
Serna told me he’s proud of his record in public life, including stops at Northern, as interim president of Luna Community College and at Workforce Solutions.
At Luna, he said, he helped with a corrective plan to save the school’s accreditation, and he played a part in organizing the search for a full-time president.
Serna, 41, said he has not asked Lujan Grisham to nominate him for full-fledged secretary of Workforce Solutions. Serna said the department needs fresh leadership after the daily pressure cooker of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said Serna’s status remains that of acting secretary.
“The administration is still actively seeking a full-fledged nominee” to send to the state Senate for a confirmation hearing, Stelnicki said Tuesday.
Politics being what they are, Biggs fears Serna might still end up as long-term leader of Workforce Solutions.
He and others familiar with the scandals at Northern New Mexico College have embarked on a write-in campaign of sorts, sending columnists and the governor’s office notes and emails critical of Serna.
One person anonymously sent me a letter outlining examples of how Serna undercut whistleblowers while he was at Northern New Mexico College.
“Yet this is the guy MLG puts in charge of Workforce Solutions and later the State Personnel Office?” the complainant wrote.
Jason Marks, an attorney who represented college whistleblower Annette Rodríguez in a lawsuit against Serna, had a similar reaction. Marks says he remains puzzled by Serna’s rise to the top of a government labor agency, temporary though it might be.
“I recognized the name Ricky Serna. I just assumed it was somebody else based on that history with the college,” Marks said.
Rodríguez, once an adjunct instructor at Northern, received a $115,000 settlement on her claims of retaliation after she exposed campus wrongdoing.
A U.S. District Court judge wrote in a court document that Rodriguez “plausibly alleges that Defendant Serna took retaliatory actions to stop her from engaging in alleged protected speech.”
Serna claimed Rodriguez improperly used copyrighted material on her website, which was critical of the college. The internet host, Weebly Inc., ultimately rejected Serna’s complaint as unfounded.
Serna, reflecting on his departure from Northern New Mexico College, told me this: “It just felt like it was time. As an administration, we felt we had done all we could do.”
Biggs says what they did harmed the reputations and finances of several honest employees.
“I got $295,000 in my settlement,” Biggs said. “But after taxes and attorney expenses, I still lost my home and all my possessions.”