Former co-op manager wants change of venue

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A district court judge set May 3 as the date for a hearing to decide whether a former Socorro Electric Cooperative manager’s lawsuit against the co-op and two members of its board of trustees should be moved to another county. The hearing will be held in a 12th Judicial District courtroom in Carrizozo.

The attorney for Kathy Torres, who was fired as Socorro Electric’s accountant/office manager in August 2010, during an investigation into financial irregularities, filed the lawsuit in September of last year. Named as defendants are Socorro Electric, its president, Paul Bustamante, and District 5 Trustee Charlie Wagner, who Torres previously accused of sex and racial discrimination in a complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The complaint alleges discrimination, defamation, retaliation, breach of implied contract and breach of good faith and fair dealing. It asks that she be awarded damages for loss of income and benefits, back-pay and front-pay, punitive damages and pre- and post-judgment interest.

Since the lawsuit was filed, all three judges in the 7th Judicial District were either recused or excused themselves from hearing the case. The New Mexico Supreme Court designated 12th Judicial District Court Judge Karen L. Parsons to preside over the case last month, and on Feb. 7 she issued a notice of hearing to address the request for a change of venue.

Motion to Move

Torres’ attorney, J. Edward Hollington, filed the motion for a change of venue in December, citing the co-op’s “undue influence” over potential jurors, prejudice against Torres and “public excitement” created by media reports.

The complaint states that Socorro Electric Cooperative has undue influence over potential jurors in Socorro County, because almost all of them would have a close association with the co-op, the sole provider of electricity in the area:

“Most all residents of Socorro County who would be eligible for jury duty are members (owners) of SEC, related to a member/owner or reside with a member/owner.”

A subsequent filing illustrates that during jury selection potential jurors in Socorro County could be subjected to cause strikes when asked such questions as “Are any on you members/owners of defendant, Socorro Electric Cooperative, Inc…?” or “Are any of your family members or friends members/owners of SEC?” or “Do any of you reside with a member/owner of SEC?”

It goes on to say that member-owners of what is a democratically controlled cooperative have a financial interest, as they are entitled to patronage capital refunds, and participate in the management of the co-op by electing trustees and adopting bylaws.

Media Attention

The motion to change venue also claims that the jury pool could be influenced by media reports of Torres’ firing.

“There have been numerous news articles in the local media about plaintiff’s termination of employment and the charges and accusations made against her by trustees and officers of SEC,” the complaint reads. “Those accusations reported in the local media included financial irregularities, fraud, and criminal conduct.”

Attached as an exhibit is a sworn affidavit from Torres, which claims she has been ostracized by members of the community since the reports came out.

“After my termination and the publication of news articles about me in the local press, I have been shunned, persons I have known for a long time now avoid me and the press coverage has created a prejudicial and negative effect on my reputation in Socorro County,” wrote Torres, who grew up in Socorro and was employed by the co-op for 22 years.

The complaint also says that local media coverage of the lawsuit Socorro Electric filed against its member-owners and a subsequent countersuit “created general controversy and excitement about defendant SEC and its board of trustees” and could have an impact on potential jurors.

“The inflammatory nature of the reporting of accusations of wrongful conduct against plaintiff and the quantity of media stories about SEC activities make it even more unlikely that an impartial jury can be impaneled in Socorro County,” the complaint states.

Through her attorney, Torres asks that her trial be moved to Torrance County, where residents receive electricity from another power provider and are not exposed to reports from the Socorro media. In the alternative, the motion suggests the trial be to Bernalillo County, where attorneys on both sides of the case reside.

TV Time

In late January, Torres’ attorney filed more papers in support of the request to change venue, in part citing alleged prejudicial publicity broadcast by an Albuquerque television station.

The day after El Defensor Chieftain reported that Torres and former General Manager Polo Pineda Jr. had been placed on administrative leave during an investigation into financial irregularities, KRQE broadcast a similar story, citing unidentified sources. A text version of KRQE’s story published on its website was attached as an exhibit to the document Torres’ attorney filed with the court on Jan. 20.

“The allegations of stealing and embezzling money has (sic) been shown to be false; however, KRQE has not published any follow-up story correcting the accusations of potential criminal conduct against Ms. Torres,” according to the filing. “Ms. Torres was given no opportunity to respond to the KRQE 13 story and given the highly inflammatory accusations and the recognized prejudicial impact of such story, this in conjunction with all the other media coverage provides an additional factor in reducing the likelihood of Ms. Torres obtaining a fair and impartial jury trial.”

El Defensor Chieftain later reported that Torres had borrowed nearly $25,000 from the co-op through her 401K plan and another lending program offered by the co-op and that the money had been paid back. The television station did no further reporting on the story.

“Plaintiff agrees that the newspaper articles alone would probably not be sufficient to support a change of venue; however, those articles along with the television story, including the visual images associating Ms. Torres with potential criminal conduct, the size of the community and the large number of member/owners of defendant SEC, as aggregate factors are sufficient for the court to find reasonable probability of unfairness and/or juries would not be able to independently evaluate the evidence at trial,” the document reads.

Protective Order

On Feb. 6, Judge Parsons signed a protective order to limit what the court deems to be confidential information that otherwise could be made public. The order was drafted by attorneys for Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, the firm representing Socorro Electric in defense of Torres’ lawsuit.

The order states that attorneys can designate as confidential any information that comes up during litigation that any party reasonably believes employees or former employees would want to be kept secret.

“Examples include, but are not limited to, information about employee wages, loans, social security numbers, and retirement accounts,” the order states. “Other types of confidential information may be at issue in this case — not just information relating to employees/former employees, and this order is not meant to restrict confidential information to that relating only to employees/former employees.”

The process for labeling information as confidential is spelled out in the order. It also outlines personnel, such as mediators, secretaries, paralegals and assistants who are entitled to receive the information, but who are still bound by confidentiality.

The court will determine whether the documents designated as confidential are admissible at trial.

That’s Not All

In addition to this lawsuit, Socorro Electric is engaged in other litigation involving Torres.

In December, the co-op filed a petition in 7th Judicial District Court appealing a Department of Workforce Solutions’ Board of Review decision to award Torres unemployment compensation, claiming that she was fired for just cause. No hearing dates have been set in that case.

 


-- Email the author at tslast@dchieftain.com.