Working the System - Former PED bureau chief, now Mora super, faked credentials

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By Martín Salazar and Mercy López
Las Vegas Optic

To say that Charles E. Trujillo worked the system on his way up the ladder to a $100,000-a-year job as the superintendent of the Mora Independent School District would be a gross understatement.

In 2008, he was a student recruiter and adviser at New Mexico Highlands University. Four years later he was serving as the bureau chief of the state Public Education Department’s Professional Licensure Bureau. By May of this year, he had secured a three-year contract as the top administrator of the Mora school district.

In 2013 while chief of the Licensure Bureau, Trujillo obtained the administrative license needed to work as a superintendent, and his boss, a high-ranking PED official, helped him get that license.

A five-month Optic investigation into Trujillo’s quick rise to the top found that he faked his credentials in order to qualify for the administrative license he obtained. In the process he managed to deceive the very state agency responsible for policing school administrators and teachers.

Indeed, a PED employee even went so far as to vouch for a fake university transcript purporting to verify Trujillo’s master’s degree.

Trujillo, 43, had not responded to multiple messages seeking comment as of press time.

Informed of the Optic’s findings, the state Public Education Department announced on Friday that it has launched an investigation of its own.

“The department takes these allegations very seriously. We have ordered a full investigation and notified state police,” PED Spokesman Robert McEntyre said. “The department strives to ensure educators and administrators have the training, qualifications and resources to successfully lead our children. If any licensee is found to have misrepresented their credentials, they will be held accountable.”

The Mora school board, meanwhile, is standing by its superintendent.

School board chairman George Trujillo — Charles Trujillo’s uncle — was also informed of the Optic’s findings. He issued a statement on Thursday.

“The selection and installation of Mr. Charles Trujillo as superintendent of (Mora Independent School District) — and as assistant superintendent in Pecos before that — were vetted by the PED,” George Trujillo said. “The district is headed in the right direction under his leadership. ...”

“This whole story seems to me to be motivated by small-town politics and driven by political adversaries, which is unfortunate,” he added. “There is important work to be done in providing a quality education for our students. That shall remain our focus.”

Multiple discrepancies
Over the last five months the Optic has obtained hundreds of pages of documents from Charles Trujillo’s current and former employers and from his PED licensure file through New Mexico’s freedom of information law.

A review of those documents turned up several discrepancies. Among the Optic’s findings:  

Charles Trujillo submitted a falsified Highlands University transcript with his licensure application. The fake transcript states that he earned a Master of Arts degree in guidance and counseling and human performance leisure & sport in December of 2004. The registrar’s office at Highlands says Charles Trujillo never obtained a master’s degree.

Without a master’s or doctorate degree, Charles Trujillo doesn’t qualify for an administrative license.

PED relied on an unofficial transcript in granting the administrative license to Charles Trujillo, a violation of its rules.

In order to be considered “official” a Highlands transcript must be sealed and opened only by a prospective employer or other requestor. The transcript contained in Charles Trujillo’s licensure file is stamped “issued to student” and does not contain the university’s watermark.

Nevertheless, PED Education Consultant Michelle Lewis sent a letter to the Mora school district in May vouching for Charles Trujillo’s transcripts, which were attached to her letter.

“Copies of official transcripts (attached) were provided to Mr. Charles Trujillo directly from the Professional Licensure Bureau of the New Mexico Department of Education,” Lewis wrote in her May 8 letter to the Mora District. “Official transcripts submitted directly from a post-secondary institution are required for professional licensure as stated by the New Mexico Administrative Code (NMAC)”

Lewis didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Charles Trujillo’s administrative license was granted, in part, because of two letters Highlands University officials sent to PED verifying that he was employed by the university as the deputy director of the New Mexico Work Program from 1995 until 2002. But Donna Castro, the university’s human resources director, says Charles Trujillo held only the deputy director position from Jan. 12, 2000 to Aug. 3, 2002 — two years and seven months.

That’s significant because PED concluded that Charles Trujillo qualified for an alternative track administrative license based on the fact that he had more than six years of higher education administrative experience.

One of the letters containing the erroneous employment dates was submitted to PED by Highlands Dean of Students Fidel Trujillo, Charles Trujillo’s cousin. The second letter, which — with the exception of the signature line — is identical to the letter sent by Fidel Trujillo, was signed by Marka Trujillo, a university human resources employee.

Both letters provide PED with the same phone number to call if there are any questions — Fidel Trujillo’s office number. Marka Trujillo is not related to Charles Trujillo.  Marka Trujillo didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

Asked to explain why both letters are nearly identical, Fidel Trujillo said in a July email, “I consulted with the NMHU HR Office to ensure accuracy of information.”

Fidel Trujillo issued another statement to the Optic on Thursday after being informed about the Optic’s findings.

“I wrote a letter supporting Mr. (Charles) Trujillo’s application for licensure,” Fidel Trujillo states. “There was no intentional misrepresentation.”

PED also granted Charles Trujillo’s administrative license based, in part, on a June 15, 2013, letter from Luna Community College administrator Debbie Trujillo. In that letter, Debbie Trujillo asserts that Charles Trujillo was employed as a “full-time Adjunct Professor from January 2003 through August 2009.”

But a review of Charles Trujillo’s Luna personnel file shows that he had never worked for the college before the fall of 2004. Indeed, contracts contained in his personnel file show that he was an adjunct instructor at Luna from Aug. 2004 through Dec. 2008, and there were no adjunct teaching contracts in his file for the fall of 2006 or for 2007.

Contracts contained in Charles Trujillo’s personnel file at Luna verify that he taught a total of three academic years as an adjunct instructor, which is significant because PED determined that Charles Trujillo also qualified for an administrative license because he taught at a college or university for five years. It’s also worth noting that adjunct teaching positions, by their very nature, are not full-time positions.

It’s unclear if Debbie Trujillo is related to Charles Trujillo. Contacted by the Optic about the story, she said she would get back to the Optic but never did.

The alternative pathways Charles Trujillo used to obtain his administrative license also required him to complete a one-year administrative internship. His boss at the time, — PED Educator Quality Division Director Matthew Montaño — signed off on that requirement as the evaluator. Montaño didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Prior to being hired by PED, Charles Trujillo had two requests for counseling license waivers denied, and records indicate that he worked as a school counselor in Rio Rancho and Wagon Mound with either a substandard license or no license at all from 2002 to 2006.

After being hired by PED and taking over as the licensure bureau chief, Charles Trujillo obtained four licenses from the agency, all of them dated July 1, 2013 and running through June 30, 2022.

Besides his administrative license, Charles Trujillo was granted: a level Three-A instructional leader pre K-12 specialty area license with endorsement in social studies, physical education and health; a level three pre K-12 school counselor license; and a level three 7-12 athletic coach license.

As chief of the PED’s licensure bureau, Charles Trujillo was responsible for ensuring that statutory and regulatory requirements were adhered to at both state and federal levels. He also managed 12 staff members who were responsible for vetting all documents submitted by individuals seeking PED licenses.

Investigations launched
Reaction to the Optic’s findings have been swift, with both the Public Education Department and Highlands University vowing to launch investigations.

“Based upon the preliminary information I have, it is my intention to launch an investigation into this matter,” Highlands President Sam Minner said Thursday morning. Fidel Trujillo was informed of that investigation at about noon on Thursday.

Luna president Leroy “Huero” Sanchez, who was out of state on Friday, said he had not been aware of Debbie Trujillo’s letter to the PED. He said he would look into the matter when he returned.

Charles Goodmacher, a spokesperson for National Education Association New Mexico, said educators are required to follow a code of ethics, and in this case there may be as many as 20 or more violations of the Code of Ethics by several people, including a current superintendent who was once the Public Education Department Licensure Bureau Chief.

“The allegations, if true, show a profound disrespect for the law as well as for the students whom the law is intended to protect,” he said.

“NEA-New Mexico is outraged and deeply concerned with the parallels here to the Secretary of State (Dianna) Duran allegations: the very individuals and agency whose duty it is to police professional conduct in a critical public arena appear to have blatantly engaged in unprofessional conduct,” Goodmacher later added.

Duran, a Republican, faces a 64-count criminal indictment accusing her of funneling about $13,000 in campaign contributions to personal bank accounts and withdrawing large sums of money while frequenting casinos around the state.

Goodmacher questioned who would hold PED’s Ethics Bureau accountable if the Charles Trujillo allegations are true: “Should a possible Ethics Commission for our state have power to assess ethics charges against appointed as well as elected officials?” he questioned.  “If the allegations are true, who will hold them responsible for failing to demonstrate to the students of Mora, Luna Community College and NMHU the values of upholding high ethical and moral standards as required by our professional code of ethics.”

Key players

Highlands dean of students, and Charles Trujillo’s cousin
Role: Sent employment verification letter to state Public Education Department on university letterhead asserting that Charles Trujillo had been employed by Highlands as the deputy director of the New Mexico Work Program from 1995 until 2002. He actually served in that position for a much shorter period, from Jan. 12, 2000 to Aug. 3, 2002.

Luna Community College administrator
Role: Sent a letter to PED asserting that Charles Trujillo was employed as a “full-time Adjunct professor” at Luna from January 2003 through August 2009. Charles Trujillo never worked for Luna before the fall of 2004, and documents in his personnel file suggest that he worked only as an adjunct instructor at Luna for three full years. In addition, there is no such thing as a full-time adjunct instructor.

Chairman of the board of the Mora Independent School District; Charles Trujillo’s uncle
Role: Cast the tie-breaking vote to hire Charles Trujillo as the Mora superintendent on a three-year contract.

Public Education Department education consultant
Role: Sent letter to Mora Independent School District in May vouching for Charles Trujillo’s fraudulent transcript.

Public Education Department Educator Quality Division director; Charles Trujillo’s former boss
Role: Signed off on Charles Trujillo’s administrative internship. Oversees division that polices educators.

New Mexico education secretary
Role: Oversees the state Public Education Department. Her signature is on the four PED licenses Charles Trujillo was issued in 2013