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College settles with its former baseball coach

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By David Giuliani

Luna Community College has settled with its former baseball coach, Sam Soto, for $55,000, officials said.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this year, Soto, who served as coach from August 2005 to December 2006, alleges that he was fired in retaliation for his having exercised his First Amendment rights.

Asked why the school settled, Luna’s human resources director, Lawrence Quintana said, “(President) Pete (Campos) wanted to move the college forward. He’s trying to tie up loose ends that previous administrations left here.”

He said the settlement was recommended by an attorney with the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority, which provides Luna its insurance.

Half of the settlement will be paid for by Luna and the other half by the authority, Quintana said.

According to the lawsuit, Luna officials asked Soto to keep all baseball players on the school rolls and not cut any of them from the program until the college used the number of students enrolled to seek state funds. With more students, Luna gets more money from the state.

Soto refused to follow the instructions and spoke out against the order to falsely inflate numbers, the lawsuit states.

After that, Quintana and then-Luna interim President Gilbert Sena launched a campaign to discredit Sena, falsely alleging nonperformance, Soto contends. Then they fired the coach.

His lawsuit contends that he suffered more than $140,00 in economic damages. He sought compensation for those damages as well as mental anguish he claims to have suffered.

When Soto filed the lawsuit, then-interim President Sigfredo Maestas said the school had planned to fight the lawsuit, saying he would take whatever the plaintiff contended with a "grain of salt."

During a personnel hearing in 2007, school officials alleged that Soto was rarely present during his assigned office hours.

However, Soto contended he worked more than 40 hours a week — a fact that Luna acknowledged but still maintained that he didn’t follow the office-hours order.

Maestas, the former interim president, said the college has little control over settlements. They rely mostly on the advice of insurance authority attorneys, he said.

He said that as far as settlements go, $55,000 is inexpensive.

Duff Westbrook, Soto’s attorney, will be away from his office the rest of the week and couldn’t be reached for comment.