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.”

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(19) comments

Richard Reinders

So typical New Mexico punish the righteous and reward the corrupt, this is what drives legitimate industry away.

Caroline Smith

Exactly

Prince Michael Jauregui

Simonich, it's a win: Mark, Chris and Dr. Johnson, -all from different political persuasions- respectively, free-thinkers. Yet, they've all FINALLY seen the light - that I ALONE have carried for DECADES:

"The true differences between Republicans and Democrats? The deceptions that they perpetuate, their benefactors whom they truly serve and the toll to be ultimately paid, by We, The People."

Gentlemen, your conductor welcomes you aboard. As wicked Politicians and cowardly Fed-traitors alike can confirm: Ride The Train, or The Train rides over you.

Richard Reinders

Didn’t Workforce Solution lose $150 million to fraud, why would you get someone questionable to head this cabinet position, unless you don’t care about public opinion.

Chris Mechels

Corruption breeds where Michelle walks. Her "administration" has no respect for our laws, the "law" is what Michelle says. No respect for the public's right to know; which includes the IPRA, OMA and Rules Act. Secretive, arrogant, and incompetent, the MLG "trifecta".

Mike Johnson

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]My thoughts exactly!

Emily Hartigan

Gosh, Chris, so what did you think of her predecessor?

Mark Ortiz

LMAO, Right but to be clear Emily, both Governor's and their administration's behavior are not mutually exclusive, yes?

Mike Johnson

And consider what we had before that too......

LeRoy Sanchez

👍👍👍

LeRoy Sanchez

🤣🤣🤣

Mark Ortiz

It seems these insider journalists could find out what MLG and Serna's relationship it and all I mean is how long have they known each other, each other's families, is Rick part of the generationally corrupt Serna family that produced Eric and his son Marco? Some of this back scratching and favor granting can go back to the Richardson administration where MLG was a cabinet secretary.

Mike Johnson

Wow! And I thought McCamley was bad. NM politics never ceases to amaze me.

Michael Kiley

It was my experience over a period of months last year, when I had encountered problems with the PUI program, and I had suggestions for improvement, that Mr. Serna has a great ability to listen, accept feedback and and suggestions, and carry forward a positive working relationship. I had registered for PUI after retaliation for reporting a clinic in Roswell flaunting ignoring COVID mask mandates.

Emily Hartigan

For those of us trying to figure out the labyrinthian politics of New Mexico, and this set of corruption allegations, it would help to know what PUI means.

Caroline Smith

I think he means Pandemic UI, the temporary UI during Covid. I was on PUA (Covid UI) and it was an abusive process. Seems designed to confuse, delay or prevent these "emergency" benefits from getting to people who lost work during Covid. Don't know who's at fault--but it is sad. DOL (Dept of Labor) are supposed to audit to see if the program was handled in good faith, according to the rules set out in the CARES Act, so I hope they can figure out what went wrong.

Emily Hartigan

Thanks, Caroline. It's been many decades since the time I had to use "UI" which, for the even more fortunate, is Unemployment Insurance.

Michael Kiley

That is correct as to PUI. The New Mexico was faced with a tsunami of simultaneous claims and several new waves of claimants from PUI and other new programs, meant to deal with loss of earnings that left basic necessities unpaid for thousands of New Mexico families. While a Trump program and very necessary, it was afflicted by an administration dead set against unemployment insurance. The previous Secretary left when he received phone threats and a car was bombed in Las Cruces. Mr. Serna stepped into a hurricane and worked diligently, in my experience, to listen to the problems and work over a period of months to make things work better. The headline is not accurate, he is acting Secretary, not the Secretary.

Caroline Smith

Oops I should have also said UI is unemployment Insurance. Maybe that is why the judge didn't know what I was talking about when I went through my many, delayed appeals for PUA. Also, I said above it was an "emergency benefit", actually it was called a "crisis" benefit. Any many are still fighting for the crisis benefit long after the crisis has passed (hopefully the Covid crisis has passed.)

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