A hearing officer has ruled that the city of Santa Fe was justified in firing former longtime employee Martin Lujan, who allegedly conspired to steal taxpayer money.
"There is just cause to support Martin Lujan's termination for his intent to commit public funds to the AAU Grand National Tournament sponsorship and advertising in exchange for payment of his personal expenses and/or for complimentary admissions and payment of expenses to attend future sporting events," hearing officer Paula Maynes wrote in a decision delivered on Wednesday.
City Manager Robert Romero commented in an email that the city takes the dismissal of employees "very seriously" and "in this case, a strict and fair process was followed and I respect the decision of the arbitrator."
Lujan has denied wrongdoing. On Wednesday, he referred questions to his lawyer Nathaniel Thompkins, who did not return messages left by the Journal.
Lujan is a former member of the Santa Fe school board who worked for the city for 18 years, most recently as interim recreation director
. He also served two terms on the Santa Fe School Board and narrowly lost out in a City Council race in 2008.
He was fired by the city in August following emails that raised questions about whether he arranged to use money from a city contract to pay for a personal trip to Florida and possibly other expenses. He appealed and a hearing was held in November and December.
"The City of Santa Fe met its burden of proof to show by a preponderance of the evidence that Martin Lujan attempted to obtain City funds under false pretenses," Maynes wrote in her decision.
"Specifically, by authorizing payment of two submitted invoices, the first for $6,000 and a second invoice for $750, to reimburse or pay Martin Lujan's personal expenses through the Santa Fe Junior Wrestling Association, via its Treasurer, Martin Lujan's brother Larry Lujan," Maynes wrote.
City administrators alleged that Martin and Larry Lujan schemed to steal money, probably including $450 for airfare or NCAA tickets, by skimming some off a city agreement to sponsor a youth wrestling tournament managed by Larry. Larry Lujan, who retired from the city in 2010 as a recreation supervisor, had sought funds for the tournament from the city.
No criminal charges have been filed against either of the Lujans.
The main piece of evidence against the brothers is a confusing series of emails in which they discuss the tournament funding. The city interpreted the emails to mean the Lujans were scheming to bill the city for personal travel, but the brothers claim that they were misinterpreted.
In testimony at the hearing, Martin Lujan's defense maintained that Romero and Lujan had already had a "tiff" before Lujan was fired when Lujan raised questions about Romero's girlfriend, a city employee, not clocking in for work and supervising her sister.
Maynes wrote that Martin Lujan, with Larry's help, intended to submit invoices to the city in excess of the $6,320 or so authorized by Romero for a tournament sponsorship and ad space. Part of the plan included submitting a $750 invoice that would have been processed through the city's contract with Elevate Media, a company that promotes the city's golf course and other recreation centers.
Martin Lujan has a "close relationship" with Elevate Media head Clarissa Lovato "as a result of his approval of expenditures for advertising for the Marty Sanchez Links de Santa Fe Golf Course," Maynes wrote.
Maynes wrote that the email exchange between Martin and Larry Lujan was "more than mere brotherly badgering."
Martin Lujan, Maynes wrote, said that Larry was trying to goad him into getting more money for the tournament, even though Martin's messages indicate that Larry knew the city's sponsorship limit was $6,000. Maynes also noted that Martin said that the brothers' discussion about trip expenses dealt with a previous visit to St. Louis for an NCAA event or possibly a future trip to Florida "for which Larry Lujan promised to use his influence with the AAU to obtain reimbursement from the AAU for Martin's airline ticket."
"There is no material difference between actual reimbursement of the purchase price of an airline ticket and promising to use one's influence to obtain reimbursement for a ticket," Maynes wrote. "In both instances, Martin Lujan's authority to authorize City expenditures or funds would have been exercised to obtain something of personal benefit to him in return.
"Such action, even if only intended, is a serious breach of the public's trust. Acts taken and statements made for the purpose of obtaining City monies under these pretences are terminable offenses," Maynes wrote.
Santa Fe Junior Wrestling never received money from the city for last year's event. The tournament was held earlier this summer.
Meanwhile, a judge at the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions ruled last month that Lujan is entitled to unemployment benefits. That resulted from Lujan's appeal of an earlier ruling that he was ineligible under a rule that prevents employees let go for "misconduct connected with the work" from receiving benefits.
Romero said he believes the city has appealed the decision.