POJOAQUE – A coalition of northern New Mexico communities that advocates for jobs and federal environmental cleanup funding at Los Alamos National Laboratory finds itself in a financial and legal mess after a citizens group raised questions about expense reimbursements for travel and dining – including alcohol – paid to the coalition’s director.
Legal questions also were raised Monday about whether the coalition, which also has pushed for millions of dollars in community investment by the lab, has the authority to spend any money at all, much less to pay for travel and booze.
“We’re in a very difficult place,” said Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, board chair of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.
There’s a political angle in the controversy, as Andrea Romero, executive director of the coalition, is running in the Democratic primary against incumbent state Rep. Carl Trujillo of northern Santa Fe County’s District 46 in the state House.
An audit by Los Alamos County, the coalition’s fiscal agent, found that Romero owed the coalition more than $2,000 in expenses that did not comply with the coalition’s travel policies, including payments for alcohol and baseball tickets.
Romero says in a written response to her board that allegations against her are political and that members of the Northern New Mexico Protect group that raised the financial questions about her travel reimbursements should be investigated. “I think the over-arching dialogue that is being had is political,” she said at the board’s meeting in Pojoaque on Monday.
She noted two of NNMP’s leaders work at LANL and maintained they may have violated lab rules “in their effort to disparage (the coalition) and me for a political purpose.”
NNMP, which has been active on a variety of public issues, says in a statement it was not politically motivated in seeking records about Romero’s spending and that it has obtained public records in several prior cases. NNMP distributed coalition documents it received under a public records request to news organizations last week.
“Standing up against corruption is my top priority, and it’s the reason I ran for office in the first place, so it’s not surprising that many people in my district share that priority,” Rep. Trujillo said in a statement. He said NNMP is a group that’s taken an interest in issues he’s been involved in, like water rights and road disputes in northern Santa Fe County, but he’s not tied to the organization.
One of Romero’s bills in question is for an $1,850 meal for 16, including coalition board members and guests, in September in Washington, D.C., with $380 of the total for alcoholic drinks. Alcoholic beverages are not reimbursable under coalition policy.
Romero says that following standard practice, she paid the bill and submitted it for reimbursement and that there was no one else available to split the bill and pay for the booze, as she says happened in an instance at the Bull Ring restaurant in Santa Fe that also has been questioned.
“I will follow the Board’s decision on reimbursing RCLC for the alcoholic beverages,” she wrote. She said either her company, which the coalition contracts with for administrative services, or board members could cover the tab.
Mayors Gonzales of Santa Fe and Alice Lucero of Española were among the officials on the Washington trip, which included visits with members of Congress and federal officials and a workshop.
Among other spending issues is $307 for 12 tickets for a Washington Nationals baseball game that an audit said was not allowed as an entertainment expense. Romero, in her written response, says the expense was approved by the coalition’s executive committee and Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal, the coalition treasurer, as a “unique opportunity” to meet with federal Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration officials.
The audit by Los Alamos County found that Romero, in all, owed the coalition $2,246 “to remedy non-compliance with the Travel Policies,” including the payments for alcohol, the baseball tickets, for failure to provide receipts, meals not considered travel and other issues.
The overpayments were noted as violations of policy regardless of whether Roybal or others had approved them. Roybal asked for a review of gray areas in travel policy in September, Romero said.
The coalition gets about $100,000 a year from the DOE and about the same amount combined from its local and tribal government members. The coalition’s annual budget includes $30,000 for travel. Romero told the board Monday she has tried to save the coalition money “as best as possible.”
The board was scheduled to consider renewing Romero’s contract Monday but never got to that issue. Romero did get a stern rebuke from Los Alamos County Councilor Christine Chandler for suggesting investigation of people who raised concerns about spending.
“I think it sends a really bad message,” said Chandler, who herself is running as a Democrat for another state House seat, this one from District 43, which includes Los Alamos and parts of other counties.
No budget authority?
Meanwhile, future operations of the seven-year-old coalition are up in the air.
At Monday’s meeting, Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller said that under the specific wording of “joint powers agreements” between the coalition and its member governments, the coalition has no power to enter into contracts, hire anybody or finance a budget.
If that’s true – the coalition board decided to ask attorneys for Santa Fe and Los Alamos counties to issue an opinion before another meeting next week – it could take months to revise the foundational documents of the coalition.
Romero’s firm has an annual contract for $140,000 that runs out Wednesday and she said she has not been paid since December, after the reimbursement issues were raised. The coalition board asked Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess to take on the work of issuing official public notice for the next coalition meeting March 5 so Romero doesn’t have to do it without pay.