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Questions arise over Lobo plaque investigation

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

University of New Mexico’s internal auditor has been asking questions about why a former regent never received an award intended for him after an anonymous allegation that another regent had stolen it.

But now UNM’s handling of the complaint – considered “closed” after an initial review – is raising other questions about consistency and whether the university should have instead sent it for an external review as it has done in similar cases.

An anonymous tipster called the University of New Mexico alleging that Regent Marron Lee stole this engraved Nambe plaque intended to recognize former Regent Jack Fortner for his service. (Courtesy of Jack Fortner)

According to UNM documents obtained by the Journal through a public records request, someone called the university’s compliance hotline last month to accuse Board of Regents Vice President Marron Lee of stealing “an engraved Nambé Lobo head designated as a gift for Jack Fortner” last summer. Lee says there is no veracity to the complaint.

Fortner resigned last May after 18 years on the board and was presented with a different recognition gift – not the “Lobo head” – during a ceremony last summer.

Fortner told the Journal he did not lodge the complaint with UNM, liked the plaque he had originally received, and called the situation “kind of silly.

“However, if my name was engraved on something, I guess I probably should’ve gotten it,” he said.

The complaint, called in Jan. 17, alleges that Lee “stole university property” by taking the Lobo head Aug. 20, 2017. The caller reported having “heard” of the incident.

“While stealing the item, Marron put it under her coat and then told Mallory (last name unknown), regent manager, ‘You didn’t see this,'” the complaint states.

Lee said she was concerned that some regents, like student representatives, hadn’t been getting Nambé plaques. The one engraved with Fortner’s name was the last of a bunch Regents had ordered as recognition gifts more than 10 years ago. Lee said she suggested to Regent President Rob Doughty that it instead be repurposed for outgoing Interim President Chaouki Abdallah and that Fortner get a parting gift like the last departing student Regent.

“It is incredibly petty and bizarre that in the midst of a series of pressing situations involving the University of New Mexico, we have individuals who chose to focus on which parting gift should go to a regent and which to a former University President,” she said in a written statement.

UNM does not have a specific policy for evaluating allegations of wrongdoing by regents – the seven people who comprise its governing board – according to spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair. The university followed what she called the “standard process” for any hotline complaint. It includes an initial review to determine if the complaint warrants further action, such as a formal investigation. Internal Audit conducted the review.

“In this case, it was considered closed after the initial review,” Blair said in written answers to Journal questions.

Asked where the Lobo head was now, she said, “Presumably, Regent Lee still has the plaque.”

UNM was unable to determine the plaque’s value, she said.

Blair said that an Internal Audit review can be fair and objective even into complaints involving regents, since it has policy authorization to investigate independently.

But at least one regent says that UNM should handle regent reviews with outside help.

Regent Suzanne Quillen expressed concern about relying on a staff member to handle a regent-centered investigation.

“A UNM employee, regardless of title, should not be held responsible for investigating an ethical complaint against a Regent,” she said in a written response to Journal questions. “I think the problem with this is quite obvious.”

UNM has in the past sought outside counsel to investigate allegations against a regent – it happened just last year in a case involving Fortner.

The university received two anonymous hotline tips last April that Fortner used UNM resources for political gain and abused the travel reimbursement policy. An anonymous Twitter account leveled similar allegations against Fortner around the same time.

UNM hired retired federal Judge Bruce Black to investigate. He ultimately determined that Fortner had not violated any law or UNM policy. The investigation cost UNM $4,679.

That Fortner case was funneled through the UNM Compliance Office and eventually referred out for external investigation with the president’s permission, Blair said.

Blair said UNM’s administration did not seek regents’ advice about how to process the complaint against Lee. It did, however, alert two of them: President Rob Doughty and Tom Clifford, who chairs the regents’ audit committee.

“Due to the high-profile nature of the allegation (they) were advised, not consulted with,” Blair wrote.

Neither Doughty nor Clifford responded to written Journal questions.

Quillen said she had not been formally notified about the complaint against Lee. Regents Alex Romero and Brad Hosmer said the same, though Hosmer said he knew of it via “rumor.”

UNM should handle each regent complaint similarly, Quillen said.

“I feel the Regents should be consistent in investigating ethical complaints against Board members and that is to hire an unbiased outside investigative body to avoid any sense of impropriety,” she wrote.

Hosmer said he would like UNM to adopt a regents policy for addressing such situations. Ideally, he said, such a policy would result in sending regent complaints for external review.

“A position I would take is, first if a hotline complaint comes in about a regent, all the regents should be immediately informed,” Hosmer said. “Secondly, since we act as a corporate body and not as individuals, I think it should go outside.”

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