The deputy secretary and the chief medical officer for the state Department of Health both have resigned. The agency on Monday declined to give reasons for the departures.
But former Chief Medical Officer Erin Bouquin — who was hired by the department less than four months ago at an annual salary of $160,000 — said Monday, “On the day I was asked to leave, I said the word condom three times on the news.”
Bouquin said she was asked to do an interview with KOAT last week for a televised report about teenagers and sexually transmitted disease.
During the interview, the fact came up that gonorrhea and chlamydia rates among New Mexico teens had jumped
50 percent in the last year. When the interviewer asked Bouquin what message she’d like to send to teens on the topic, she stressed the use of condoms.
“Use condoms. Condoms are very very important in controlling sexually transmitted diseases,” Bouquin answered. She also noted what she called “the ABCs” — abstinence, be faithful and birth control.
The piece aired Thursday, May 17, about 9 a.m. By 10 a.m., Bouquin said, she got an email asking her to meet with department Secretary Catherine Torres at 4:30 p.m.
In that meeting, Bouquin said she was told, “You are being dismissed because you haven’t met the expectations of the governor.” She said she was told the department didn’t need a reason to fire her, even though she was in a classified position, because she was still serving a one-year probationary period.
She was then given an opportunity to resign, which she did, she said, because she felt it would send young people the wrong message if she was fired for advising teens to use condoms.
Bouquin said she suspects the interview is the reason for her separation from the department because she had heard that Gov. Susana Martinez favored abstinence-based sex education.
Bouquin said the Department of Health recently applied for Title V federal funding that stresses abstinence-based sex education and that others in the department were concerned about a return to that policy.
“Things are becoming more political at the department,” Bouquin said.
Bouquin tendered her resignation via a handwritten note on a piece of notebook paper. “Dear Secretary Torres,” it read, “Thank you for the opportunity to work for this administration. I hereby resign from my position as Chief Medical Officer of Department of Health.”
Department spokeswoman Aimee Barabe said there was no connection between the interview and Bouquin’s separation from the department.
The governor’s spokesman, Scott Darnell, said in a written statement that the governor had nothing to do with Bouquin’s separation from the department.
“We’re aware that the department recently re-organized several upper management positions including the chief medical officer position,” Darnell wrote. “The Governor is a proponent of taking a balanced and multi-pronged approach to controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases; there is nothing in Dr. Bouquin’s interview that would conflict with that approach.”
The news of Bouquin’s separation from the state and the reasons she feels she was asked to leave were first reported May 21 on a website called the Los Alamos Daily Post.
Deputy Secretary Wally Vette also resigned Thursday. His letter — which was typed on department letterhead — also offered few clues as to the reasons behind his separation from the department.
“Dear Secretary Torres,” it read. “It is with a certain sadness that I offer my resignation from The New Mexico Department of Health. I know the Department will continue to do good work and serve the people of the State well. My best wishes for you and the staff.” Vette, who could not be reached for comment Monday, was paid an annual salary of $108,000.
In declining to provide any information about the reasons for the resignations, Barabe said in a written statement that the department does not comment on personnel matters.
“We will say,” she added, “that we sincerely appreciate the services of both Wally Vette and Dr. Erin Bouquin during their time at the Department of Health.”
Barabe said there are no vacancies in leadership at the department as a result of the resignations. She included in her statement a memo that went out Friday announcing a reorganization of jobs at the department, which indicated that Vette, who oversaw programs, had been replaced by Jim Green, who was formerly the deputy secretary in charge of finance, administration and facilities.
Bouquin was replaced the day after her departure by Dr. Richard Adams, who was previously chief medical officer of facilities.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or email@example.com.
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