PASCO — The former head of the Washington State Migrant Council claims he was fired because he threatened to tell authorities that some of the council's board of directors are illegally in the U.S.
That allegation is part of a lawsuit by Carlos Diaz, the council's former executive director, which will be decided by Franklin County jurors.
Diaz threatened to sue the council after he was fired by the board in December 2007. He told the Yakima Herald-Republic then that he was a victim of a hostile takeover because he had planned to recommend board chairman Rodolfo Mendoza quit the board or the council break off its banking relationship with the Mendoza's employer, US Bank.
But when Diaz sued the council in Franklin County Superior Court in February 2009 for wrongful termination, he focused his arguments on the immigration status of the board members who fired him.
Tadeo Saenz-Thompson, the council's chief executive officer, said in an email, "We of course deny such allegations and are vigorously defending against them."
He declined to comment further on the case, which is waiting to be heard by the state Court of Appeals.
The council provides early childhood education and other services to low-income and rural poor families in nine counties including Benton and Franklin. The Sunnyside-based nonprofit will serve about 4,000 children in its Head Start programs and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program this year.
The council claimed it fired Diaz, who had been the executive director since 1983, for absenteeism and tardiness, insubordination, four years of unsatisfactory performance and gross misconduct and mismanaging a remodeling job, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic. Diaz, the council's founder, denies those allegations.
Diaz had an annual salary of about $136,000. He said he was dismissed with two weeks of severance pay and benefits and that he would seek one month's pay for every year he was employed by the agency, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic.
The agency under Diaz's leadership often was cited by state and federal regulators for noncompliance with various rules, such as those governing nepotism, spending and children's safety.
Diaz previously had denied that any council employees or board members were in the U.S. illegally. He told the Yakima Herald-Republic in 2007 that the council ran Social Security checks on board members and employees and never had been told by federal authorities that a number wasn't a match.
But the newspaper reported that a federal document showed Agustin Garcia, then the council's board chairman, was using a Spokane woman's Social Security number.
After that article, Diaz said Garcia admitted he was in the country illegally. Diaz claims he then asked Garcia and other board members who admitted they were in the country illegally to resign, according to a March 10 brief by Diaz to the Court of Appeals.
Having illegal aliens on the board could jeopardize the council's federal funding, Diaz said in court documents.
"I was fired because I planned to protect the funding sources of the Washington State Migrant Council by reporting the illegal status of two remaining board members," he alleged.
The migrant council received $31.5 million in federal money in 2010, according to the council's 2009-2010 report. It spent $36.5 million last year and has a 2011 budget of $37 million.
The case went to the Court of Appeals on May 5 after the migrant council appealed court instructions on what the jury would hear about board members' immigration status.
Garcia and four other former and current board members declined to provide information related to their citizenship or immigration status, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, according to court documents. Three of the five still are board members.
Attorneys for Diaz and the council did not respond to a Herald request for comment. The Herald was unable to contact Diaz.
* Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; email@example.com