Laurie Gruel claims protection under whistleblower act

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FARMINGTON — A former San Juan College employee has filed a lawsuit in district court against the Board of Trustees, alleging it violated state laws when her position was eliminated.

Laurie Gruel worked as senior director of institutional planning and grants at San Juan College until December 2016. Her position was eliminated as part of staff reductions.

Gruel was one of a dozen employees who were laid off that month as part of a $1.14 million budget cut.

She alleges she was protected under the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act when her position was eliminated. She also alleges the college violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act. Gruel alleges Vice President of Student Services David Eppich harassed and bullied her. Gruel alleges Eppich’s treatment of her was a basis of the college’s decision to terminate her employment.

“The College is restricted from commenting on pending litigation and personnel matters,” said Kerri Langoni, San Juan College associate vice president of human resources and legal activities. “However, please know that as is the case with all personnel matters, the College is committed to adhering to internal policies and procedures, as well as all state and federal laws.”

Gruel alleges she was retaliated against because she alerted authorities, including the New Mexico State Auditor’s Office, to what she believed constituted misuse of grant funds.

That includes using the Small Business Development Center staff to assist Four Corners Economic Development. College President Toni Pendergrass serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit organization that promotes economic development in San Juan County.

In another instance, Gruel alleges Pendergrass worked with Verne Avery, the domestic partner of the college’s vice president of learning, to develop and submit loan and grant applications. The complaint states the funds were funneled through Avery’s employer, Global Knowledge. The company is unaffiliated with San Juan College.

The complaint states Gruel believed the college was losing grant opportunities because Avery’s efforts to secure grant funding had the money funneled through his employer.

Gruel asked to meet with the San Juan College Board of Trustees in February 2016 to share her concerns. When she did not receive a response in “an appropriate and timely manner,” Gruel reached out to New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller, according to the complaint.

After she informed the college board and Pendergrass about a meeting she had already had with the State Auditor’s Office, the board requested she meet with the vice president of administrative services and Langoni, the vice president of human resources, according to the complaint.

The Board of Trustees informed Gruel in August 2016 that it would not take corrective disciplinary action against Pendergrass, but would hire a third party to investigate the grants program at the college. The complaint alleges that the investigation focused on Gruel.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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