Former employee filed lawsuit earlier this year in district court

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FARMINGTON — The San Juan College Board of Trustees has denied most of the allegations in a lawsuit filed by a former employee claiming state laws were violated when she was laid off in December 2016.

The complaint was filed on March 20 in Aztec District Court by attorneys for Laurie Gruel, the former San Juan College senior director of institutional planning and grants, against the college board.

She claimed her rights under the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act and the New Mexico Human Rights Act were violated when she was laid off.

Gruel was one of 12 college employees laid off after a $1,139,385 mid-year budget reduction was approved by the board members.

College administrators said the budget cut was due to the approval of a state Senate bill signed by Gov. Susana Martinez on Oct. 24, 2016, which called for a 5 percent budget cut for nearly all state agencies. 

The original complaint filed by Santa-Fe based attorneys Samuel Wolf and Jiadai Lin alleged Gruel was retaliated against because she had notified authorities, including the New Mexico State Auditor's Office, about the alleged abuse of grant funds and ethical violations in the grant process.

The complaint alleges Gruel was bullied and harassed by former Vice President of Student Services David Eppich. He retired from the college on Feb. 28, according to college spokesperson Lucy Haber.

The complaint also alleges college President Toni Pendergrass refused to comply with grant obligations and allowed staff members at the Small Business Development Center to "shift time" to the nonprofit organization Four Corners Economic Development.

The response to the complaint was filed on April 30 by Farmington-based attorneys William Denning and Luke Salganek, who are representing the college board.

It claims all actions taken against Gruel were due to her misconduct and poor job performance, which are not related to the conduct prohibited under the state whistleblower protection act, according to court documents.

One of Gruel's attorneys believes the evidence will prove her allegations against the college board are true.

“We are confident that the evidence will support Ms. Gruel’s allegations, and we look forward to the opportunity to present that evidence in court," Wolf said in a statement provided to The Daily Times.

The college board members claim in the response that Gruel failed to exhaust her administrative remedies, and a financial exigency was declared that justified the reduction in force the board approved.

The response acknowledges the college board responded to Gruel on Aug. 9, 2016, but denies allegations that the board would not take disciplinary action against Pendergrass and that a third-party investigation of the grants program focused on Gruel.

The defendants also denied allegations the college was losing grant opportunities because Verne Avery of Global Knowledge was developing and submitting grant and loan applications and the funds were funneled to the company.

Avery was listed in Gruel's complaint as the domestic partner of former Vice President of Learning Barbara Ake.

Ake was most recently the chief strategic initiatives officer for San Juan College and worked in the president's office.

Her employment at the college ended Friday, according to Haber.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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