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The Fall of Manny Arrogant
by The Laughing Man
Thursday, Jun. 29, 2006 at 7:04 AM
He is placed on leave by the Board of Regents, and investigated by the FBI for kickbacks. Sucks to be Manny, these days.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Highlands Puts Aragon on Leave
By Dave Kavanaugh
Journal Staff Writer
LAS VEGAS, N.M.— New Mexico Highlands University President Manny Aragon has been placed on leave by the school's Board of Regents.
Regents chairman Javier Gonzales said Aragon and the regents were talking about Aragon's future at the school. "We've been in active discussions with Manny concerning his employment," Gonzales said Wednesday evening.
Gonzales declined to say whether Aragon, a powerful state senator from Albuquerque before taking the Highlands job in 2004, would be fired or might otherwise leave his $165,000-a-year post.
He said regents hope there will a resolution today "We're hoping to come to a mutual agreement," Gonzales said.
Aragon, contacted late Wednesday, declined to provide specifics. "We're still talking. I've got nothing else to say," he said.
Regent John Loehr, a vocal critic of the Aragon administration, said, "We hope to resolve this early and constructively."
An announcement sent via e-mail Wednesday morning to Highlands employees stated that until further notice, Manu Patel— the school's vice president for finance and administration— would assume the responsibilities of the president's office
Neither Gonzales nor Loehr would elaborate on reasons.
Darlene Tapia, Patel's administrative assistant, said Patel was out of the office and unavailable for comment late Wednesday afternoon.
Gonzales said the decision to place Aragon on leave and the ensuing discussions had "nothing to do with any current or potential indictments."
Aragon's name has surfaced in an FBI investigation into padded contracts and kickbacks in construction of the new Metropolitan and District courthouses in Albuquerque and of the Metropolitan Detention Center— public projects with a combined cost of more than $210 million.
The investigation became public in March when FBI agents sought records from Metropolitan Court; state Auditor Domingo Martinez confirmed he was gathering records for federal investigators on the district court construction.
Aragon was a witness in a lawsuit between two partners in an engineering firm that did work on the projects and testified in a deposition that he provided legal services to the engineering firm.
A four-year contract regents approved for Aragon in 2004 called for him to collect his annual salary for the full period if regents decided to part ways with him "in the best interests of the university."
Asked about that part of Aragon's contract, Gonzales said: "That's not where our discussions are."
The contract allows regents to fire Aragon without compensation for cause— including dishonesty, misconduct or unwillingness to perform duties in good faith.
"It is clearly my hope that it (a resolution with Aragon) reflects both of our commitments, the board's and Manny Aragon's, about what is in the best interest of the university as we move forward," Gonzales said.
Aragon's time at Highlands has been marked by controversy, particularly over personnel moves and faculty relations.
He replaced Highlands graduate Kim Carpenter as director of NMHU's Farmington learning center with Thomas Atcitty, a former Navajo leader and state legislator. Atcitty has since departed.
Lyn DeMartin, fired as director of Highlands' Santa Fe center, claimed racial and gender discrimination in a lawsuit the school recently settled for $250,000.
Moves that riled faculty included a February 2005 decision by the regents— on recommendation of Aragon and then-Provost Janice Chavez— to deny tenure to four Anglo professors who had drawn solid reviews from peer committees.
One of them, Gregg Turner, filed a federal lawsuit alleging wrongful termination after he was fired later in the semester, allegedly for criticizing the administration after the tenure decision.
The latest blow came June 10 when the American Association of University Professors voted to censure NMHU after finding the university had likely violated principles of academic freedom and due process in its handling of Turner and professor David Wiedenfeld, who also was denied tenure.
Aragon supporters have praised him for solidifying the school's financial standing, emphasizing student concerns and working to develop external partnerships.
They credit him with reducing a $6 million exposure due to previous noncompliance with grants and contracts to less than $700,000; bolstering the school's contingency funds by 28 percent over the past year; paying off a $1.6 million bank loan; and drafting a balanced budget.
NMHU was the only in-state university that didn't raise tuition and fees rates this past summer.
The school anticipates a surge in freshmen enrollment— possibly as many as 350— due to aggressive recruitment and a new scholarship designed to eliminate tuition costs for all first-time freshmen.
In September, regents voted to give Aragon a $15,000 bonus.
Earlier this year, the regents and Aragon agreed on a change of roles for Aragon.
He was to spend more time representing Highlands externally in areas such as fundraising and partnerships with other entities while leaving day-to-day operations to his vice presidents.
A recent trip by Aragon and Patel to India in search of engineering students for Highlands— criticized by Loehr, but supported by Gonzales— was cited as an example of his new role.
Regents recently pared Aragon's ability to issue contracts. Gonzales said the regents recently adopted a policy requiring all contracts of $30,000 or more to come before the regents for approval. "It's good procurement practice," Gonzales said.
Journal Investigative Reporter Mike Gallagher contributed to this report.
Aragon at a glance
Manny Aragon is a South Valley Democrat who rose from the state Senate's back bench to become its president pro tem.
A brilliant legislative player and tough political infighter, he ran the Senate with an iron hand from 1988 through 2000. He was unseated as pro tem in 2001 by Richard Romero of Albuquerque through a coalition of Republicans and three Democrats. In a coup of his own the same year, he took over the position of majority leader.
Aragon, a lawyer, resigned from the Senate to become president at Highlands in 2004.
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