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Probes into LANL coalition continue post-primary

SANTA FE, N.M. — While outgoing state Rep. Carl Trujillo was to testify before a legislative panel this week about sexual harassment allegations made against him, the candidate who beat him in a contentious Democratic primary election earlier this month is herself at the center of two ongoing investigations.

The reviews are of expenses incurred and reimbursement received while she was heading a coalition of nine northern New Mexico communities.

Andrea Romero

Andrea Romero served as executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities until March 1, when the $140,000-per-year contract her consulting firm had with the RCLC expired amid controversy over the expenses and questions as to whether the coalition had ever been legally organized to enter into contracts.

At the time, Romero was making her first bid for political office by challenging Trujillo for his House District 46 seat in the Democratic primary.

She was under fire for submitting reimbursement requests for booze and baseball tickets for a trip taken by her and coalition board members to lobby in Washington, D.C., last September and for other costs. The allegations were raised by a citizens group whose leaders also happened to be ardent Trujillo supporters.

That led to Los Alamos County – which functioned as the fiscal agent for the coalition – to commission an independent investigation into the coalition’s fiscal issues after two county councilors called for an ethics review.

The matter also got the attention of the state Auditor’s Office, which is conducting a special audit of the RCLC, which promotes environmental cleanup money for – and jobs at – Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“There are enough concerns here to warrant a close look by an independent public accountant to make sure that all state laws were followed in the expenditure of public money,” state Auditor Wayne Johnson, a Republican, said at the time. “We have seen expenditures for items like baseball tickets and $28 for a single glass of ‘Whistling Pig’ whiskey.”

The state audit is also to investigate whether RCLC board members and/or Andrea Romero Consulting LLC, received double reimbursements for expenditures, as well as issues related to procurement.

Asked about the status of the state auditor’s investigation, a spokesman said the special audit is ongoing and is expected to be completed by the end of July.

The two probes loom as Romero is now the de facto representative-elect in House District 46, which extends from northern Santa Fe neighborhoods to the Rio Arriba county line. She beat Trujillo in the Democratic primary by winning 53 percent of the vote, and there is no Republican candidate.

No expense policy

The scope of Los Alamos County’s investigation is to examine possible violations of the state’s Audit, Governmental Conduct and Per Diem acts, procurement code and Anti-Donation Clause of the state Constitution, according to a preliminary report by the Albuquerque law firm hired to conduct the investigation.

The investigation by the Adams+Crow law firm covered three areas: whether any laws, ordinances or policies were violated; if so, were the violations done knowingly; and, if so, were there efforts to conceal misconduct.

Though the investigation is incomplete, the firm has so far not found “any definitive evidence” that any county employee intentionally engaged in wrongdoing, according to the staff attorney who presented the report to the Los Alamos County Council earlier this month. It had not found any evidence of double reimbursements either.

While the focus of that investigation is on the role the county and its employees had with the coalition – the county has representation on the coalition board – Adams+Crow raised “concerns” regarding the RCLC’s accounting and financial management practices from 2016 to 2018 while Romero was executive director.

The coalition has been funded annually by about $200,000 in public funds, half from the federal government and the other half from local governments, with most of that from Los Alamos County.

In a memo to the county council outlining its preliminary findings, the law firm said that the RCLC never adopted an expense policy, as required by its bylaws; that it “appears” that contracts, including the one with Romero’s firm, Andrea Romero Consulting LLC, were not competitively bid; and that RCLC’s travel policy doesn’t comply with the Per Diem Act.

It says expense records appear to show hotel, flight and meal expenses for the RCLC board trip to Washington, totaling $2,341, exceeded allowable limits under the coalition’s travel policy and the act.

In addition, “RCLC expenses included many meal and entertainment expenses that may not have served a public purpose,” potentially violating New Mexico’s constitutional “anti-donation clause” against public spending for private purposes.

While the memo doesn’t mention WhistlePig whiskey (not Whistling Pig, as the state auditor described it), the memo does note the controversial $307 purchase of 12 tickets to a Washington Nationals game.

“Use of public money for entertainment expenses, including plays, sporting events and concerts are not permissible expenditures of public money under the Anti-Donation Clause,” the law firm wrote.

During a June 12 County Council meeting, County Manager Harry Burgess said the amount of reimbursements being questioned totaled between $1,800 and $2,000.

Responding to a request for an interview by the Journal, Romero first asked that questions be submitted via email. When they were, she provided a statement that didn’t address most of the questions.

“I am fully cooperating with the firm conducting the audit,” she wrote on Wednesday. “I am providing them with all of the information they request to assist them with their audit. I will continue to provide full cooperation throughout the entire review process. In accordance with standard practice, I am referring all questions about the audit itself, including the information sought and received, to the firm conducting the audit. Any questions about the RCLC and its members should be directed to that entity. My commitment to the people of New Mexico has been and always will be unwavering, and I look forward to the public receiving a full accounting, which I hope is finished soon.”

Romero did speak to the Los Alamos Monitor after the June 12 County Council meeting. She told the newspaper that she hadn’t met with Adams+Crow because of scheduling conflicts. She also said that she wanted to know what questions she would be asked by investigators in advance, saying circumstances had changed now that she won the primary, and because she was trying to understand what the investigation was about and what information they needed.

“It’s just a different situation now that I’m elected,” she told the Monitor. “It’s just an important threshold to understand what (the questions) are going to look like. It’s just a matter of due process.”

‘Just a number’

Los Alamos County is spending $50,000 on the investigation into what so far amounts to possible misuse of less than $2,000. Romero has said she paid back $580 for the questioned reimbursements, although there had been talk of a larger amount.

After initially committing $30,000, the County Council voted 6-1 this month to spend an additional $20,000 to learn the conclusions from the Adams+Crow investigation.

Councilor Rick Reiss cast the lone “no” vote.

“It would seem to me this investigation should be terminated or it should be postponed until we have the results from the state Auditor to determine whether its necessary to dive completely into the rest of it,” said Reiss, who attended the June 12 meeting telephonically.

Reiss said the county could ultimately spend “a grand total of $60,000 to solve a $2,000 problem.”

But his colleagues felt it was important to get answers to lingering questions.

“I look at it differently,” Councilor Susan O’Leary said. “I don’t look at it as an issue about reimbursements, I look at it as an issue of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that this county put into the regional coalition since 2011.

“One of the responsibilities that we have as councilors is to make sure tax dollars are spent appropriately,” she said, adding that it was important for the council to be transparent. “We need to explain to the public, and to ourselves, what went wrong and what we’re going to do to address these issues.”

Councilor Pete Sheehey agreed. “To stop (the investigation) in the middle sends absolutely the wrong message to the public,” he said.

Councilor Christine Chandler, who herself won a Democratic primary race against Sheehey to become the nominee for the House seat in District 43 based around Los Alamos, voted to spend another $20,000 on the investigation, though reluctantly. Chandler, who was serving on the RCLC board when the coalition essentially went largely dormant in March amid the legal questions over whether it could contract for a new director to succeed Romero, wasn’t convinced the $20,000 figure was based on any real analysis of how much money was required for the investigation. She suggested that the amount was “just a number” that Adams+Crow came up with indiscriminately.

She successfully added a friendly amendment that requires the county manager to first produce a detailed budget supporting the additional expenditure.

Unlike Romero, Chandler does have a Republican opponent in the fall, Lisa Shin.

‘Substantial confusion’

Though Adams+Crow attorney Alana De Young said the RCLC investigation was “closing in” on finality, she made clear the law firm had yet to draw any final conclusions. Investigators hadn’t interviewed Romero, she said, and they had been sorting through volumes of documents and dealing with issues that made the investigation “complicated.”

For instance, De Young said the investigation found there was “substantial confusion” about how the RCLC should be classified.

“It appears that there’s been a misunderstanding for several years of whether RCLC is a local public body or is more properly classified as acting as a non-governmental entity of some sort,” she said, adding that the uncertainty and confusion made it difficult to determine whether the RCLC was in violation of any laws.

As a local public body, the RCLC would be required to submit annual audits to the state Auditor’s Office and budgets to the Department of Finance and Administration. The RCLC hasn’t been doing that, despite receiving guidance from the Auditor’s Office that it should in 2013, two years after the coalition – now made up of Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos counties, the cities of Española and Santa Fe, the town of Taos, and Jemez and Ohkay Owingeh – was formed.

The Feb. 20, 2013, letter signed by then-Deputy State Auditor Carla Martinez affirms that the RCLC is a “special district” defined as a “local public body” and would be required to have audits conducted by an independent public accountant separate from the county’s annual audit.

But, somehow, that never happened.

“It is unclear from our investigation thus far when or who decided that RCLC should not be classified as a local public body or government entity for state regulatory purposes,” states the memo from Adams+Crow to the council.

However, the memo includes an excerpt from the minutes of the RCLC’s Aug. 11, 2017, meeting that has Los Alamos County’s chief financial officer, Steven Lynne, responding “no” when asked by then-Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, the RCLC’s chairman at the time, whether the coalition was subject to state audit regulations.

Adding to the confusion, De Young said, was whether Los Alamos County was supposed to be the fiscal agent for the coalition. While it had functioned in that role for several years, the RCLC’s fiscal agent was undefined under the Joint Powers Agreement, she said. The JPA is the arrangement that brought the coalition member governments together.

“There is confusion by County finance staff and RCLC regarding what entity, under the JPA and all laws, was responsible for managing or overseeing RCLC’s accounting, expenditures, travel reimbursements and procurement,” the Adams+Crow memo states.

As the fiscal agent, the county would handle deposits and disbursements from an RCLC bank account after being approved by the RCLC’s treasurer, according to the memo.

“Our investigation demonstrates the County staff believed the RCLC Board was appropriately approving expenditures,” the law firm states.

Also muddying the waters was that some reimbursements were funneled through a third party, Energy Communities Alliance, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit of communities impacted by U.S. Department of Energy activities, such as the national labs.

Councilor O’Leary asked De Young about the role ECA played with regard to providing reimbursements. She said it appeared that ECA acted as a clearinghouse for RCLC expenses.

De Young said she didn’t have an answer.

“That is part of the ongoing investigation that needs to be finalized and further analyzed in order to give the council and adequate, accurate answer,” she said.