The state Children, Youth and Families Department has paid $650,000 to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought by two former agency officials.

The settlement was reached just weeks before the case brought by former CYFD public information officer Cliff Gilmore and his wife, Debra Gilmore, who headed the CYFD office of children’s rights, was to go to trial in Santa Fe state district court.

“We wanted to hold CYFD accountable and stand up for others who may have been treated the way we were,” said the couple in a statement released Tuesday morning.

The two, who were recruited to work for CYFD and moved here in late 2020 from Washington state, were fired on the same day, May 6, 2021. They claimed they were retaliated against, in part for their refusal to “conform to the culture” created by then-CYFD cabinet secretary Brian Blalock, court records state. CYFD maintained they were insubordinate.

Their firings came after they raised concerns about what they believed were unethical and potentially illegal actions by senior officials.

For instance, Debra Gilmore raised questions about the decision to award work on a multi-million dollar information systems project without competitive bidding. The hiring of the firm was being pushed by Blalock, and the state wouldn’t be assured of owning the software product in the end.

Cliff Gilmore voiced concerns about the agency’s decision to use a texting application that automatically deleted official communications among senior CYFD officials. Cliff Gilmore told Blalock in a memo the use of the app could be perceived as a violation of public records and record retention laws. He was fired two weeks later.

Ultimately, Blalock resigned months later by mutual agreement with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who appointed him in early 2019.

The agency stopped using the texting app, and Blalock’s successor, former state Supreme Court justice Barbara Vigil, decided to put the bulk of the Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System work out to bid.

“We aimed to shine light on what we believed to be wrongdoing that was directly harmful to the very children that CYFD was sworn to protect,” the Gilmores stated.

CYFD admitted no wrongdoing or liability in agreeing to settle, and an agency spokeswoman on Tuesday declined to comment other than to say the case had been resolved and the settlement was public.

CYFD lawyers contended there was no evidence that the couple engaged in communication protected by the state Whistleblower Protection Act.

The agency pointed to the decision by a state Ethics Commission hearing officer who found no probable cause that Blalock or his then-deputy Terry Locke violated the state procurement law opting not to put the project out to bid.

Locke quit the agency in late 2021, and Vigil resigned in April of this year.

To date, work on a new CYFD information system is far from complete. CYFD has yet to hire a full-time public information officer and is still looking for a new agency cabinet secretary.

“From here, we must rely on diligent oversight by public citizens, dedicated journalists, and the justice system to continue holding the governor and CYFD accountable for ethical conduct, transparency, and the continuous improvement of services to protect and support New Mexico’s children and families,” stated the Gilmores, who have relocated to Virginia.