Prior to being fired as chief executive officer of the New Mexico Finance Authority, Rick May received a monthly car allowance of more than $300 from the government agency.
And prior to John Duff’s forced departure as its chief operating officer, the Finance Authority paid nearly $600 a month to lease a luxury Hyundai Sedan for him.
The authority also paid thousands of dollars for Duff’s gas to commute from his Albuquerque home to Santa Fe and for satellite radio and maintenance for the car.
New management at the Finance Authority discovered the car perks in taking control last summer in the wake of the scandal over the authority’s forged 2011 audit.
May and Duff say there was precedent at the Finance Authority for providing such benefits to top executives.
Bill Sisneros, who headed the authority from 2004 to 2011, says the agency had a leased Ford Taurus when he arrived and that it later leased a Honda Accord.
Sisneros says he had priority in using the Accord but that other employees could use the car and that occurred on occasion.
The average government institution doesn’t dole out car perks, but the Finance Authority isn’t your average agency.
The authority is part of government, but the Legislature, in passing the law to create the Finance Authority in 1992, decided it should operate “separate and apart from the state.” That means it is free of those pesky personnel and purchasing laws that most government agencies must follow.
The law gives the authority more flexibility to operate like a private business, albeit with taxpayer money.
A board of directors, made up mostly of appointees of the governor, and a committee of the Legislature are supposed to supervise Finance Authority operations, but it’s clear that supervision wasn’t exactly crackerjack in years past.
The Finance Authority has been a success in its purpose: helping to finance billions of dollars in roads, sewers and other public works projects around New Mexico.
But it has been under the microscope since the discovery last summer that its 2011 audit wasn’t completed and that its former controller, now facing criminal charges, ginned up a fake version. It was posted online for investors and others.
The Finance Authority’s board fired May in September, and Duff, whose duties included supervising the controller, left the agency that same month after being given a notice of planned termination. Neither has been accused of direct involvement in the forged audit.
Shortly after the scandal broke, Gov. Susana Martinez appointed a new board chair, Albuquerque lawyer Nann Winter, for the Finance Authority. Government veteran John Gasparich also was brought in to serve as interim CEO.
Bill Fulginiti, executive director of the New Mexico Municipal League and a board member at the Finance Authority since its creation, says a leased car was made available to Sisneros because of frequent business trips around the state.
Duff was named interim CEO when Sisneros left the authority in the spring of 2011, and he says he inherited the Honda leased under Sisneros.
“I assumed it went with the position,” Duff says.
He says he drove the Honda until the lease expired, then found a car more suitable to his 6-foot-4-inch frame.
In June 2011, Duff leased a 2011 Hyundai Genesis (price: $45,491) for three years for nearly $4,100 in cash down and $598 a month.
Duff says that when May came on board as CEO of the Finance Authority in September 2011, he offered to turn the car over to May but May declined, saying he would make other arrangements.
“I had the CEO telling me I could continue to drive it,” Duff says.
May says he decided Duff could keep the car because he was a former CEO and had taken a pay cut from $160,000 to $145,000 to stay with the authority as chief operating officer.
Mays says that shortly after he went to work at the Finance Authority, its chief administrative officer approached him and told him that he was entitled to a car as part of his compensation.
He says he chose to drive his own car and was advised that he could receive a car allowance instead. The allowance was $317 a month.
“It sounded reasonable that as CEO, I, too, was eligible to receive either a car or a car allowance and that I was just receiving a benefit similar to what all others in the same position had before me,” May wrote in an email to me.
Duff says he primarily used the leased Hyundai to commute from his Albuquerque home to Santa Fe but also used the car for business once in Santa Fe.
Like many other employees at the Finance Authority, Duff had an authority credit card and used that to pay for gasoline for the car. In the first six months of this year, the authority paid more than $1,850 in gas bills.
Duff also used the credit card to pay for a subscription to XMSirius satellite radio and for vehicle maintenance and carwashes.
He says he had the XMSirius subscription so he could listen to a Bloomberg financial news show while driving to work in the mornings. He compared it to having a subscription to The Wall Street Journal.
The new management at the Finance Authority had the Hyundai returned in August to the Albuquerque dealership where it was leased, but the car’s final cost to taxpayers isn’t yet known.
There were nearly two more years on the lease, and the balance owed on the lease and the value of the car will be taken into consideration in the final cost. The dealer sent the car to auction in September.
The car had nearly 39,000 miles when turned in to the dealer; the lease provided for a 20-cent per mile penalty for miles over 12,000 a year.
The Finance Authority has ended the practice of car perks for top executives. Like the folks who work for them, they must now use a vehicle provided by the General Services Department.
An authority policy prohibits employees from commuting in those vehicles or using them for other private benefit.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal