Griswold pays six figures on discrimination claim | Jimmy Sengenberger (2024)

Amid a storied history of staff turnover long plaguing Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, one story stands out: an employee, alleging discrimination, secured a six-figure settlement.

In 2022, Abbas Montoya, a career staffer with a decade-long tenure, formally accused Griswold’s office of unlawful discrimination in the workplace based on race/ethnicity.

According to nearly 200 pages of documents I’ve reviewed, Montoya applied for deputy director of business and licensing in June 2022, but was passed over when the role went to another colleague, Mike Fitzpatrick.

Beginning with a complaint filed that July, Montoya alleged he was passed over because of his Hispanic heritage and lost out to a less-qualified white man — highlighting his own experience as a customer support supervisor for the SOS, leadership in Colorado’s Air National Guard and multiple advanced degrees.

“During (nearly nine years with the SOS), I have continued to be alarmed at the lack of people of color hired into positions of authority in this office,” Montoya wrote.

His lawyers observed that the only person of color in senior leadership is Manny Lopez del Rio, Griswold’s appointed director of public engagement, who “does not directly supervise anyone.” Furthermore, the SOS “cannot list more than three individuals of color” among senior leadership within a decade.

When Montoya had to absorb another team into his own, his leadership led the SOS’s office to receive the “prestigious IACA Merit Award” for two years. Yet, Montoya claimed, he was still paid less than similarly-situated, white peers.

“I do believe if I was white, I would be paid higher,” Montoya alleged — lamenting that his position was “far less valuable than so many others in this organization who carry less responsibility, work tempo, and I would even argue skillsets.”

Montoya’s settlement garnered a whopping $120,000 taxpayer payout — equivalent to the annual pay of the job he didn’t get. Montoya left on Oct. 15 and joined History Colorado as director of people and culture in December.

“The Department of State wishes Mr. Montoya the best in his future endeavors. The settlement is not an admission of fault for either the Department or Mr. Montoya,” Griswold’s office told me in a statement, echoing the agreement itself.

“We take any allegation seriously and investigate all claims,” they added — but the July 2023 decision by administrative law judge K. McCabe casts doubt on this assertion.

In her ruling, McCabe determined that an opinion reached by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in May 2023 dismissing Montoya’s case “did not directly address his allegations of past discriminatory behavior in hiring processes by one of the panel members and the final decision maker.”

McCabe concluded Montoya may possess sufficient evidence of “prima facie discrimination” and issued a hearing notice. Soon after, Griswold’s office settled with Montoya in late August.

“The Department is committed to hiring, cultivating, and retaining a diverse staff and has made every effort to prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion practices Department-wide,” they told me. “The Department’s hiring practices ensure no candidate receives an unfair advantage for any reason.”

The department pointed to required annual EDI trainings and insisted “strong policies in place to protect employees for raising concerns on these issues when they arise.”

Reached for comment, Montoya had little to add.

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“I’ll always voice my concerns of inequities in any organization I’m part of,” Montoya said in an email. “That was the crux of my complaint and an experience that is behind me. I’ve moved past my time with the Secretary of State’s office, and I am focused on being part of a leadership team that aligns with my values, which is here at History Colorado.”

Here’s the thing: This isn’t Griswold’s first settlement with a disgruntled employee.

In January 2020, she personally signed a settlement agreement with her first deputy secretary of state, Jenny Flanagan, outlining terms for Flanagan’s exit.

That agreement included a non-disclosure clause — made illegal last year by the Legislature — and mandated personalized talking points for both Griswold and Flanagan.

Flanagan had departed in February 2020 after only 13 months. She was briefly succeeded by Ian Rayder until January 2021, when Christopher Beall assumed the role — marking the third deputy secretary in two years.

This was historic: In the previous 20 years, only two deputy secretaries served under six different secretaries of both parties.

When she took office in Jan. 2019, Griswold swiftly replaced the entire leadership team with partisan Democrats.

They all fled within 13 months.

Reese Edwards, Griswold’s second legislative liaison, highlighted her staggering turnover in a deleted 2020 LinkedIn post.

“(T)his office has over 200% turnover within its executive team in less than two years under current leadership,” he wrote, adding “other options (are) better suited for talented individuals looking to make an impact in Colorado.”

Today, Griswold is on legislative liaison #4, communications director #4 and chief of staff #5. Twelve percent of all SOS positions appear vacant on administrative staff charts — up from 8% in 2021.

Notably, the exodus includes another Hispanic staffer, who now works alongside Montoya at History Colorado, and now-retired director of business and licensing Mike Hardin, temporarily replaced by Mike Fitzpatrick as interim director.

Let’s be real: While Montoya’s discrimination claim remains unresolved due to the settlement, his departure fits into the broader mosaic of staff turnover and morale erosion under Griswold’s leadership.

Whatever Montoya’s claim tells us about Griswold’s carefully-crafted image as a progressive champion of diversity and inclusivity — the unprecedented turnover and turmoil among her staff in general raise meaningful questions about her commitment to an equitable and welcoming workplace.

Jimmy Sengenberger is an investigative journalist, public speaker, and longtime local talk-radio host. Reach Jimmy online at or on X (formerly Twitter) @SengCenter.

Jimmy Sengenberger is an investigative journalist, public speaker, and longtime local talk-radio host. Reach Jimmy online at or on X (formerly Twitter) @SengCenter.

Griswold pays six figures on discrimination claim | Jimmy Sengenberger (2024)
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