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Pricey whiskey gives primary hopeful a hangover

It’s clear that Andrea Romero, until recently under contract as executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL communities, messed up when she submitted for and received reimbursements for travel expenses that included alcoholic beverages and tickets to a Washington Nationals baseball game.

Booze and entertainment are clearly unallowed expenses under the policies of the coalition, which is funded by taxpayer dollars from the U.S. Department of Energy and local governments. Romero said she was counting on Los Alamos County, the coalition’s fiscal agent, to be the “check and balance,” and make sure any travel reimbursements were proper.

That’s not a good argument for an executive director to make. She should have known what was allowable under coalition policies. Romero has since repaid $1,100 in unallowed expenses and dropped out of consideration as the coalition moves to hire a new director since Romero’s contract recently expired. Romero and an assistant who was part of her contract were the coalition’s only staff.

To be clear, Romero is not the only one to blame for this fiasco for the little-known coalition, which lobbies for cleanup money for Los Alamos National Laboratory and for the contractor that runs the lab to invest in surrounding communities.

A coalition dinner in Washington that resulted in an $1,850 bill, including $380 for wine, beer and spirits, was attended by 16 people. They included board members like then-mayors Javier Gonzales of Santa Fe and Alice Lucero of EspaƱola, and Los Alamos County Councilor Rick Reiss. Someone in that esteemed group should have been smart enough to wonder about how the liquor was being paid for and pulled out a personal credit card, especially for that $28 glass of WhistlePig whiskey that sticks out like a flashing neon sign on the dinner bill.

Romero says the Nationals’ ball game was intended as a way to schmooze with federal officials involved in LANL affairs and that it was approved by the coalition’s executive committee and the board treasurer, Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal. There were also questions about the number of business meals Romero charged to the coalition.

Romero says the coalition had been discussing travel expense issues internally, but the improper reimbursements didn’t emerge publicly until a northern Santa Fe County community group sought public records from the coalition. It’s a political hit job intended to help incumbent District 46 state Rep. Carl Trujillo, whom Romero is running against in the June Democratic primary, she says.

It probably is, but that’s beside the point. The coalition travel reimbursements were a mess. That’s a legitimate issue and Romero is naive to think it wasn’t going to come out in a political campaign. Some of those elected officials who served as her coalition board members likely are friends with Trujillo.

Like any challenger, Romero faces a tough task in trying to unseat an incumbent. Running as a progressive, she has portrayed Trujillo as beholden to corporate interests and lobbyists, and tried to tie him to Albuquerque attorney A. Blair Dunn, a legal flame-thrower who is running as a Libertarian for state attorney general.

While using Dunn as a foil would normally be a good tactic in a Democratic race, the specifics of politics in District 46 may turn out to be different. Northern Santa Fe County has seen a series of issues in recent years that have split the populace, with non-Indian residents on one side and the area’s four Native American pueblos on the other. In the long-running Aamodt water rights case, Dunn represented 330 objectors to a settlement with the pueblos. That’s a lot of voters.

There seems to be some confusion about whether Dunn has a connection to the community group that filed the public records request that led to disclosure of the coalition’s travel reimbursement mistakes. But Dunn did in fact represent Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights when it filed a lawsuit over whether the public would be able to continue to use roads claimed by the pueblos that provide access to non-Indian homes. He had 400 clients in that case.

In the same roads dispute, Trujillo tried to fight his way into closed-door negotiations among county officials, the pueblos and the U.S. Department of Interior. Trujillo also was active in the Aamodt water debate.

Romero says Trujillo has been divisive, and other local leaders who’ve tried to negotiate resolutions to these tough, intractable, intra-ethnic problems might agree. But residents involved in these and other controversies, including over a proposed high-voltage power line supported by pueblos, may see Trujillo as standing up for them when everyone up to the federal government is on the other side.

These aren’t the kind of issues that campaign consultants who see the world along standard conservative versus liberal lines can take on with simplistic, rote lines from the usual playbook.

So Romero, despite supporters touting her good works and entrepreneurship in other areas, faces an uphill climb in the June primary. And that shot of WhistlePig whiskey, whoever drank it, doesn’t help.