By Daniel Libit
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from UNM spokesperson Cinnamon Blair.
In direct response to NMFishbowl.com’s story last month about former Lobo basketball operations director Cody Hopkins, the University of New Mexico has now formally demanded Hopkins pay the school $63,411. That amount represents the sum total of all unreconciled charges a UNM Special Audit claimed Hopkins had put on his school Purchasing Card, regardless of whether the charges were for legitimate purposes.
The school’s demand was issued in a terse, one-page letter sent on March 15 by Kimberly Bell, UNM’s senior deputy counsel, to Hopkins’ lawyer Elizabeth Higginbotham. NMFishbowl.com recently obtained a copy of that letter through a public records request. In it, Bell writes that university officials “read with interest” the NMFishbowl.com article, and noted several “apparent admissions” Hopkins made, which included his failing to keep up with his P-Card reconciliations; forging signatures; and using the P-Card for personal or family expenses.
At best, the letter’s summary of “apparent admissions” only superficially captures much of what Hopkins acknowledged in the 8,700-word story this website published in early March. But it shows that the story may have, at the very least, agitated UNM enough to reignite dormant efforts of pursuing recourse. Hopkins had previously told NMFishbowl.com that he was in possession of some UNM monies, and was interested in returning those funds whenever the school provided an appropriate forum to do so. However, he strongly disputed at the time that the number was anything approaching the amount UNM is now seeking from him.
But any hope of a good-faith negotiation between parties seems to have gone out the window in the wake of the university’s latest shot across the bow.
On Tuesday, Higginbotham sent a formal response letter back to Bell — and forwarded it to this reporter, by way of an on-the-record comment — in which she called into question UNM’s intentions and the very legitimacy of its Special Audit. Higginbotham further alleged that after Hopkins left Albuquerque in late December 2015, his Lobo men’s basketball office was “sanitized” by Yvonne Otts, the Athletic Department’s director of business operations, and that documents relevant to the audit investigation may have been removed or destroyed in the process. Higginbotham did not provide evidence or explanation for how she came to this conclusion about Otts.
However, she wrote, “This fact alone nullifies any offer you may couch as a fair or accurate means to an accounting or audit at this point. The fact that your ‘offer’ is belated after the slander per se of my client speaks volumes, none of it favorable to your client.” (Otts did not respond to an email seeking comment sent to her Tuesday evening.)
Neither in the Special Audit itself, nor in the public comments made by school officials, has UNM previously indicated that it believed Hopkins misappropriated the amount of funds it is now seeking from him. Rather than a substantive effort to recoup missing cash, UNM’s letter smacks of a retroactive attempt at C.Y.A or, worse yet, an attempt to bully an ex-employee who has now cast himself as a whistleblower.
In October, Hopkins filed an EEOC complaint against the university, in which he cited a substance abuse problem and claimed that he had been retaliated against by the school. In her letter to Bell, Higginbotham suggests that her client now plans to sue the school in federal court, “a very regulated arena.” Higginbotham also takes issue with what she calls “thinly veiled threats” in Bell’s letter.
In that letter, Bell contradicted one of the key assertions Hopkins made in the March 2 NMFishbowl.com story: that he was never adequately provided an opportunity to participate in the Internal Audit investigation of his P-Card activities. According to Hopkins, his former legal representative, the College Station, TX-based attorney Gaines West, went to Albuquerque in early 2016 to discuss with UNM’s lawyers how his client could participate in the process. But Hopkins said that when the meeting took place, West quickly came to the understanding that UNM was not actually interested in hearing Hopkins’ version of events — and left without a collaborative agreement in place.
In her letter to Higginbotham, Bell writes, “Internal Audit personnel very much wished to speak with your client during the investigation, but Mr. Hopkins’ former counsel told me that Mr. Hopkins declined to speak with them.”
West has repeatedly declined to respond to requests for comment from NMFishbowl.com, up to and including a voicemail left at his office Tuesday. Reached late Tuesday night, Hopkins adamantly stood by his original account that UNM only wanted him to turn over documents and provided no forum for him to tell his side of the story. That side, Hopkins previously told NMFishbowl.com, included a number of systemic accounting and oversight issues that benighted the department and made his job increasingly untenable.
Bell did not respond this week to requests for comment about the timing or content of the school’s demand letter to Hopkins’ attorney.
But the timing is, indeed, curious, as is the insistence that Hopkins pony up the full amount of monies the Special Audit claimed he failed to properly reconcile. This, theoretically, would include funds Hopkins spent for legitimate basketball team expenses, but which he may have been unable to provide adequate documentary proof for. In February 2016, three months before the audit report was released, former UNM President Robert Frank told the Albuquerque Journal that the actual figure of misspent funds was likely less than a $55,400 figure that had been floating around at that point.
In its Special Audit investigation, the school identified less than $10,000 that might have been spent for Hopkins’ personal use. In denying this, Hopkins went down the list of disputed charges with this reporter, providing detailed explanations for almost all of them. Only in one instance did Hopkins say that a P-Card charge had been used for a non-business expense: a $466.20 bill racked up by a family member at the Embassy Suites hotel in Albuquerque. Hopkins said this charge was inadvertent, and he only learned about it after the audit report came out.
Hopkins did admit signing other coaches’ names on facsimiles of cash withdrawal sheets after having misplaced original copies of the forms. But he said that these actions were never done for personal gain, only to the move the reconciliation process forward.
Bell’s letter was sent to Hopkins’ attorney roughly 10 months after the school’s Special Audit was completed. Up until this point, UNM has repeatedly claimed that it had taken all appropriate actions to recoup lost funds. The school’s Athletic Department spokesman Frank Mercogliano went on a Lobo fan-site message board earlier last month to blame the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office for “drag(ing) their feet” in bringing charges against Hopkins. The school has still not publicly responded to any of the substantive issues Hopkins spoke of on the record, including his claim that six other UNM Athletics staffers used his P-Card at various times during his employment.
On Wednesday afternoon, university spokesperson Cinnamon Blair sent the following statement: “As NMFishbowl.com reported, UNM forwarded its audit findings to the Bernalillo County District Attorney for potential criminal prosecution, and that process continues. The letter speaks for itself and was intended to initiate a dialogue with Cody, through his attorney, to seek repayment of University funds. At the time of your initial inquiry, we had never received any communications from Cody or his current legal representative.”
NMFishbowl.com will update this story if additional comments or relevant information is provided.