PHOENIX (CN) — The former town clerk sued the central Arizona mining town of Superior and its former Mayor Frank Valenzuela on Wednesday, claiming they fired her for finding and reporting felony theft by town credit card, for which Valenzuela has been indicted.
A grand jury indicted Valenzuela on a single charge of theft, a Class 5 felony, in July. “Immediately after the indictment was announced, Mayor Valenzuela was fired from his position as Jail Commander of Pinal County Sheriff’s Office,” former Town Clerk Rachelle Sanchez says in her federal lawsuit.
Valenzuela was recalled, lost the recall election in August and was removed from the Town Council.
By then he had cast the deciding vote to fire Sanchez, she says in the lawsuit.
When she was hired as the town clerk in July 2015, Sanchez says, she found the town’s checking count was a “seriously flawed” and tangled “morass.”
There were only two debit cards issued on the town account, one to Valenzuela and one to Town Manager Margaret Gaston, but no records to indicate which official made cash withdrawals, “no receipts for these transactions and she [Sanchez] had way to account for the transactions,” the complaint states.
“Sanchez believed that that the withdrawals were thefts and that a crime had been committed.”
As she continued to find cash withdrawals with no receipts and no way to account for them, Gaston refused to answer her concerns, and in December Mayor Valenzuela told her she was about to be fired, Sanchez said.
At the Dec. 9, 2015 Town Council meeting, Sanchez says in the complaint, she told the council that someone had been taking money without accounting for it.
The complaint continues: “Valenzuela told the Council that he had used the Town’s debit card inadvertently but had repaid the Town for the cash withdrawals.
“The Town Manager then spoke up and confirmed to the Council that the Mayor had repaid the withdrawals.
“Mayor Valenzuela and Town Manager Gaston were lying; the cash withdrawals had not been repaid.”
Valenzuela then called for Sanchez to be fired. With the council vote tied at three votes to three, “Valenzuela looked at Sanchez, smiled and then cast the deciding vote to dismiss Sanchez,” she says in the complaint.
It was pure retaliation, Sanchez says. A subsequent audit turned up even more cash withdrawals by Valenzuela, and also showed that he had not repaid the money before the Dec. 9 meeting. The Arizona attorney general began a criminal investigation early this year, which led to the July indictment.
Sanchez seeks lost wages, including front pay, and punitive damages for wrongful firing and violation of her First Amendment rights.
Gaston is not a party to the complaint.
Sanchez is represented by Martin Bihn, with Bihn & McDaniel, in Phoenix.
Superior, pop. roughly 2,800, is a dying copper town. Its population fell from 3,254 in the 2000 census to 2,837 in the 2010 census, both far below the town population when the giant copper mine that was its economic heart was being operated at full bore. Its median per capita income of $12,490 is less than half the statewide median.