'This is people trying to remove checks and balances.' Second high-ranking admin files lawsuit against NMSU

Justin Garcia
Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES – The former administrator who oversaw New Mexico State University's compliance with discrimination laws filed a lawsuit claiming the university retaliated against her for doing her job.

Laura Castille, who held the title of Executive Director of the Office of Institutional Equality and Title IX Coordinator until October 2022, filed a lawsuit in the Third Judicial District Court on Feb. 7. Castille accused NMSU's top leadership of gross mismanagement, abuse of authority and violation of university policy and said NMSU violated her civil rights under the state's Whistleblower Protection Act.  

Specifically, Castille alleged that NMSU Vice Chancellor Ruth Johnston moved to ensure that a "close ally of hers" would become the Chief Audit Officer. Castille said Johnston then tried to cut Castille out of the hiring process after Castille reported the incident.

Ruth Johnston is New Mexico State University system vice chancellor and chief operating officer.

Finally, Castille said that NMSU leadership – including Chancellor Dan Arvizu – refused to evaluate Johnston's conduct and forced Castille to resign in August 2022.

Castille is the second administrator to allege a culture of retaliation and power politics at NMSU's highest levels in the aftermath of a leadership shake-up last year, and the second to file such a lawsuit. In December 2022, former Provost Carol Parker accused NMSU leadership of firing her because she sought to investigate allegations of sexist and racist pay discrimination.

NMSU declined an opportunity to comment on either lawsuit. Justin Bannister, Associate Vice President for Marketing and Communications, told the Sun-News that NMSU does not typically comment on pending litigation.

Ben Gubernick, Castille's attorney, said Castille filed the lawsuit after a long history of working with and attending NMSU as a student. In a call with the Sun-News, Gubernick said Castille cares deeply about NMSU and the university's role in Southern New Mexican communities.

But the actions university leadership took against her were "so contrary to NMSU's principals," Gubernick said Castille felt litigation was her only recourse.

"This is people trying to remove checks and balances," Gubernick said. "This is like Game of Thrones-type stuff."

Palace intrigue and retaliation – The allegation's timeline  

Before starting her job overseeing NMSU discrimination and harassment compliance mechanisms, Castille was a student at NMSU and an attorney in Southern New Mexico.

A biography written by her current employer says Castille received two degrees from NMSU – including a B.A. in Political Science in 1992 and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction in 1994. After teaching high school in Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico for over a decade, Castille enrolled in UNM's School of law in 2012. Castille graduated in 2014. 

After practicing law in Albuquerque, she returned to her alma mater in 2018 as Executive Director and Title IX Coordinator. Castille also oversaw NMSU's Office of Institutional Equality. One of Castille responsibility's included reviewing NMSU job postings to ensure compliance with state law, federal law and NMSU policy.

In June 2022, Castille reviewed the posting for Chief Audit Officer and discovered Vice Chancellor Johnston had changed the posting, according to Castille's complaint.

Castille found the position was altered so that the new Chief Audit Officer – who oversees NMSU's audit, fraud, risk management, accountability, and transparency functions – would report to Johnston. The position previously reported directly to the chancellor and the Board of Regents.

Castille said Johnston also changed the job qualifications "so that only one person – a close ally of (Johnston's) at NMSU – would be eligible for the job," the complaint reads.

For Castille, this amounted to a policy violation. She then reported the issue to Kenneth Van Winkle, another vice chancellor who oversaw the Chief Auditor Officer's hiring committee. Castille's lawsuit said Van Winkle relayed the concerns to Johnston.

Instead of correcting the issue, Castille said Johnston ordered one of her subordinates to cut Castille from the process. 

Castille alleged that Abigail Denham, a human resources director, used Castille's NMSU computer credentials to remove the auditor job posting from Castille's access.

When Castille found out, she reported Denham and Johnston to NMSU's top leaders, including Arvizu, the interim chief audit officer, the general counsel, the chief IT security officer, and the vice president of human resources.

According to the complaint, Castille told the cadre of NMSU leaders they needed to conduct an audit into Denham and Johnston's conduct.

"NMSU officials did not address Denham and Johnston's actions," Castille's complaint states. "Instead, in the weeks that followed, NMSU officials engaged in a pattern of retaliatory action against (Castille)."

Castille said in the complaint that she was reprimanded without due process and disparaged among her peers, all at Johnston's discretion.

On Aug. 11, 2022, NMSU put Castille on leave and evicted her from office. She resigned shortly after that.