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PRC civil trial is first test of state's whistle-blower law [The Santa Fe New Mexican]

By Tom Sharpe, The Santa Fe New Mexican
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Jan. 17--Santa Fe County Commissioner Danny Mayfield testified Wednesday that when he was the state Public Regulation Commission's chief of staff, he fired Aaron Feliciano because Feliciano was the root of problems between the insurance and legal divisions.

Feliciano, a former chief examiner and compliance director for the Insurance Division, is suing the commission, Mayfield and former division superintendent Morris Chavez, claiming he was wrongfully fired for pointing out problems with the troubled state agency.

Feliciano's lawyers, Bryan Davis and Repps Stanford, said they believe Feliciano's case is the first to go to trial over the state's 2010 Whistleblower Protection Act.

The jury trial began Tuesday before state District Judge Raymond Ortiz and is expected to conclude Friday.

In his June 2010 complaint for wrongful termination, Feliciano said he was fired in 2009 after he complained of "inappropriate hiring of political contributors to conduct insurance examinations and ineffective and costly insurance examinations. ...

"Defendants Chavez and Mayfield, however, were more concerned with obtaining government jobs for their friends and political allies, making nice with the insurance companies, and avoiding statutory responsibilities to enforce the New Mexico Insurance Code for, and on behalf of, the citizens of New Mexico," the lawsuit says.

On Wednesday, Mayfield said he believed the lack of cooperation between the commission's insurance and legal divisions was hindering the ability to make speedy examinations into allegations of insurance fraud and that Feliciano was the "common denominator."

"He went through seven to nine attorneys in the legal division," Mayfield said. "He was the one variable that seemed not to work."

Chavez, who also testified Wednesday, said some commission staffers reported that Feliciano was seldom at his desk and often was at his wife's beauty salon in Santa Fe during business hours. Chavez cited "chronic absenteeism" in recommending that Feliciano be fired, although under questioning, Chavez admitted that he was always able to reach Feliciano by calling his cellphone.

Nevertheless, Chavez said he thought Feliciano "was in over his head" in trying to get the Insurance Division re-accredited by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Feliciano's lawyers rested their case after Mayfield and Chavez's testimonies concluded Wednesday afternoon. After the jury was dismissed for the day, Judge Ortiz rejected motions for a directed verdict from Douglas Gardner and Daniel Macke, the defense attorneys for the Public Regulation Commission, Mayfield and Chavez.

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Gardner and Macke are expected to call two witnesses Thursday. Final arguments are planned for Friday morning, so that the case can go to the jury by Friday afternoon.

The Public Regulation Commission has been the target of numerous recent lawsuits by former employees, including Darlene Gomez, Elaine C. Aragon, Cindy A. Romero and Annette Prada, alleging discrimination and sexual harassment. Romero recently settled her case. Prada was found dead of an apparent suicide Nov. 29, three days after filing a discrimination complaint, in what family members said was the result of "bullying and stress" at her job.

Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or tsharpe@sfnewmexican.com.

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(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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