SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A former New Mexico Public Regulation Commission employee h as won a $355,000 civil jury award after finding that he was fired in retaliation for pointing out problems at the agency.
But The Santa Fe New Mexican reports (http://bit.ly/T5hGdE) that the amount of damages to Aaron Feliciano is double the jury award because the case was brought under the state’s 2010 Whistleblower Protection Act.
The $710,000 in damages will be paid by state taxpayers.
Feliciano was fired from his $85,000-a-year post as compliance director for the Public Regulation Commission’s insurance division in 2009 after he complained that his supervisors were hiring political contributors to investigate insurance cases and that the resulting investigations were slow, costly and ineffective.
In 2010, he sued the commission, its former chief of staff Danny Mayfield and former insurance division director Morris Chavez under the Whistleblower Protection Act. The suit claimed Feliciano was fired for criticizing cronyism within the agency.
Defense attorney Douglas Gardner insisted Feliciano had been fired for poor job performance and unprofessional conduct — and that even before he was fired, Feliciano had begun documenting his supervisors’ actions and had hired a lawyer in preparation for a lawsuit.
“The purpose of this job-security plan was simply to make it harder for his employer to fire him,” Gardner said.
Feliciano’s lawyer, Bryan Davis, said awarding damages under the new state law would send a different message.
“With this case, you can show New Mexicans that you care about how government functions,” he said.
Davis hammered away at the defense’s argument that Feliciano falsely claimed he was a certified public accountant in New Mexico.
Outside the courtroom, Feliciano said he had both a CPA certificate and license in Illinois, although he never was licensed as a CPA in New Mexico.
The jury foreman, Ann Woodward, said the main factors that influenced the verdict were that the insurance division wasn’t living up to its mission and that there was a vendetta against Feliciano.