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More heat for regional coalition, over money for leader’s ostrich farm

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, a Democratic candidate for a seat in the state House of Representatives, is under fire again.

At issue, this time, is whether it was appropriate for the commercial ostrich farm, which she co-owns with a Los Alamos National Laboratory employee, to receive funding, coming from a program funded by the private entity that manages the lab, as well as some of the communities that make up the coalition.

Last year, Tall Foods, owned by coalition director Andrea Romero and lab employee Adam Wachtor, received $51,000 in funding from the Venture Acceleration Fund.

Andrea Romero

Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), the private for-profit coalition that manages LANL, founded and provides most of the funding for the venture fund and announces the businesses that get money. The city and the county of Santa Fe, which are members of the coalition, also contribute to the program, which is aimed at boosting young businesses.

Jay Coghlan, who heads Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a nonprofit watchdog group, says Romero’s receipt of funding from LANS is a problem.

“It is, at a minimum, unseemly for the Executive Director of the Regional Coalition, which lobbies for increased LANL funding, to receive funding for her private business from LANS, (which) runs LANL,” he said in a news release Thursday.

“Ultimately, that funding for her private business comes from the American taxpayer,” Coghlan said.

LANS, which includes the University of California, Bechtel and two other corporate partners, has had the $2.4 billion federal government lab contract since 2006. The contractor can also earn additional millions of dollars in annual fees from the Department of Energy, based on performance.

Coghlan also noted that the Regional Coalition lobbied the state Legislature this year to pass a bill requiring LANL to continue to pay gross receipt taxes if a new lab management contract, which is currently in the bidding process, is awarded to a nonprofit university. Nonprofits are typically exempt from the tax. The legislation was passed and is awaiting signing or veto by Gov. Susana Martinez.

“If successful, that would help ensure the Regional Coalition’s funding stream,” Coghlan said. Local governments like the city and county of Santa Fe get revenue from gross receipts taxes.

Romero says the accusations about a conflict of interest are baseless.

“It has nothing to do with my role with the coalition,” she said. “These are completely separate.”

Romero says that she competed “as an individual” for Venture Acceleration Fund money and had to go through a competitive process judged by an independent panel. Tall Foods was one of six startups that were awarded funding last year.

The Regional Coalition is made up of nine cities, towns, counties or pueblos in northern New Mexico. According to its website, “The organization’s focus is community and economic development, site employment, environmental remediation, and adequate funding for LANL.”

The coalition receives about $100,000 a year from the Department of Energy and about the same amount combined from the communities that make up the coalition.

Romero, whose firm has an annual contract of $140,000 to run the coalition, has also called publicly for LANL management to spend $3 million annually on local community projects like economic development efforts, and for such a commitment to be made by whatever entity wins the new LANL contract.

Better red meat

Romero said her Tall Foods ostrich farm is a fledgling business that aims to provide “greener, healthier, tastier red meat.”

She said that so far, the venture fund money has been used to integrate technology and surveillance systems into the ostrich operation on a ranch in San Miguel County. Collected data can be used to monitor and evaluate the birds’ health.

She said that with knowledge gained from the new systems, she wants to help entrepreneurs everywhere but particularly New Mexico farmers. “The whole idea is to establish an industry that’s rooted in 21st-century practices that can be applied across the board,” she said.

Romero said her farm has to meet about a half dozen milestones in order to keep the funding, which is structured as an interest-free loan but doesn’t need to be paid back unless the company fails to meet milestones, is acquired by another business or leaves the state.

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, at least until his term expires next week, serves as chairman of the Regional Coalition. He agrees with Romero that there is no conflict of interest.

“For one, she doesn’t get to participate in how LANL directs funds when it comes to economic development,” he said. “Her contract is to lobby and increase the amount of funding that goes to lab cleanup.”

“The process of selecting those businesses that receive funding is done through a juried process,” he said. “Based on scores, awards are given out. Those are all open, competitive contracts she had to compete for. Those two things don’t intersect the least bit.”

Asked if LANL saw any conflict of interest, a lab spokesman said the Venture Acceleration Fund selection process is managed by the Regional Development Council, a private, nonprofit economic development organization.

Reimbursement controversy

Last week, questions were raised regarding travel and dining reimbursements, including those for alcohol at coalition dinners, and tickets to a Washington Nationals baseball game that were paid to Romero. An audit by Los Alamos County, the coalition’s fiscal agent, determined that Romero owed more than $2,000 for reimbursements that did not comply with the coalition’s travel policies. Romero has said she depended on Los Alamos County to check on whether reimbursements were proper.

Romero, who is running on the Democratic ticket for the District 46 House seat currently held by Rep. Carl Trujillo, said she believes the allegations against her are political. They came to light after Northern New Mexico Protect (NNMP) obtained records on her reimbursements through a public information request. Trujillo said he has no ties with the citizens group, but he and NNMP have been on the same side on roads and water disputes in northern Santa Fe County.

“I know this is about politics, and that makes me sad,” Romero said.

Romero’s contract with the coalition expired Wednesday. Renewal of the contract was to be discussed at a meeting last Monday, but it was sidetracked by the questions over the reimbursements and concerns about the coalition’s legal authority to enter into contracts. The coalition is set to meet again next Monday.