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Scathing audit says after-the-fact changes used to ‘correct’ coalition spending

House District 46 Democratic nominee Andrea Romero, shown here at a candidate forum in May, is under fire for reimbursements during her tenure as director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Los Alamos County officials and the former executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities who is now poised to become a state legislator made after-the-fact accounting and policy changes to “correct deficiencies” in questionable travel, meal and entertainment reimbursement payments, according to a blistering independent audit released Friday.

The 38-page audit by the Albuquerque law firm Adams+Crow, commissioned by Los Alamos County, comes just days after the state Auditor’s Office released its own audit that determined more than $50,000 in improper payments were made to Andrea Romero Consulting, members of the coalition’s board and third parties since 2014.

More than half the total — $26,862 — went to the consulting firm owned by Romero, who defeated incumbent Carl Trujillo in a contentious Democratic primary for the District 46 House seat in June.

No Republican will be on the ballot in the northern Santa Fe County district in November’s general election, but another Democrat, Heather Nordquist, is running as a write-in candidate.

Democratic House speaker Brian Egolf, of Santa Fe, told the Associated Press this week he will continue to support Romero’s candidacy, saying the state audit showed Romero acted properly to correct reimbursements while she was executive director of the coalition, also known as RCLC.

“I’m looking forward to serving with her in the House,” Egolf said. “This audit report clearly shows she took appropriate responsibility for reimbursement errors.”

The Adams+Crow audit states that many reimbursements did not have prior approval of the RCLC board and that the coalition violated the state Per Diem and Mileage Act, the Audit Act and the Anti-Donation clause of the state Constitution. It also says that there are also potential violations of the Governmental Conduct Act and Los Alamos County’s Code of Conduct.

No one interviewed during the investigation admitted to any wrongdoing, but the after-the-fact revisions don’t make the county look good, Adams+Crow said.

“We did not find any documented ‘admissions’ by County officials or employees of a concerted effort to mislead or conceal but the County’s ‘corrective’ efforts not only reflect poorly on County officials and employees but may constitute efforts to intentionally mislead others and/or conceal misconduct,” Adams+Crow said.

More could come later. The report says that on July 27, a box belonging to the county’s former deputy county manager that contained procurement documents relating to RCLC was discovered, the contents of which were not examined by investigators. And the financial controversy could draw the attention of other state government entities.

“We assume the State Auditor’s investigation and any subsequent government investigations by the NM Attorney General or Department of Finance and Administration will examine potential issues with procurement, Open Meetings Act, and auditing compliance,” the law firm’s report states.

The scope of the Adams+Crow audit was to investigate whether any laws, ordinances or policies were violated; if so, were the violations done knowingly; and if so, were there efforts to conceal misconduct.

The answers appear to be yes, yes, and maybe.

While the audit “did not reveal any direct evidence of county officials or employees intentionally attempting to mislead or conceal misconduct,” its findings indicate that county employees acted to “remedy” improper expenditures and reimbursements.

Among those actions were “recharacterizing the nature” of impermissible reimbursements to Andrea Romero Consulting (ARC) to make them conform with maximum out-of-state limits for per diem and incidentals under the coalition travel policy, according to the report.

Retrofitting payments

It says that after the reimbursement issues came to light, county officials assisted Romero’s firm and the RCLC in amending the travel policy so reimbursements conformed to the policy. They also helped ARC amend its contract with the coalition so the travel policy would not apply.

The report says that Romero declined to be interviewed as part of the investigation, but she did provide written information relating “attendees, alcohol consumption, and itemized receipts for certain events.”

In a statement provided to the Journal on Friday, Romero said she takes responsibility for improper board expenses of the RCLC and that she paid back what she owed. Romero says she’s paid back $1,876.

“As I have stated, neither I, nor I believe any board member, knowingly or deliberately violated any standard for reimbursement,” she said.

“When I paid for hotel rooms and airline tickets on my personal credit card, it was for RCLC travel to important meetings. I was simply following the procedures explained to me when I began working for the Coalition in 2015.”

She said coalition officials – its board consists of elected officials and other local government leaders — were all acting in good faith to do the business of the RCLC. “No one benefited financially from any expenditure. Although I am no longer with the Regional Coalition, I look forward to continuing to work with those involved to resolve these matters.”

According to the Adams+Crow audit, it appears that it was ARC’s practice not to seek approval for expenditures or reimbursements ahead of time.

Little documentation

“As a general matter,” the investigative report said, “we found little direct documentation of advanced RCLC Board approval for any of the expenditures incurred or reimbursed during the review period,” which was from March 2016 to March 2018 when RCLC’s contract with Romero expired.

The report found “several unconventional reimbursement practices” by ARC and RCLC. “The circuitous route taken to pay and request reimbursement appears to have been undertaken, in some cases, to circumvent necessary approvals,” it says.

Among them were at least 43 reimbursements for group meals and seven reimbursements for non-RCLC guests. Some of those occurred during a RCLC trip to Washington, D.C. last September when $307 was spent for 12 tickets to a Washington nationals baseball game and six tickets went unused. The coalition has also come under fire for a meal in Washington where tax dollars went to pay for alcohol, including $28 for a shot of whiskey.

The report says that the arrangement between the RCLC and its executive directors was designed to provide them with powers the RCLC itself did not have. The coalition has $200,000 annual budget divided among the federal government, Los Alamos County and other local governments to push for funding for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s environmental clean-up efforts and local economic development related to the lab.

“Using ARC, or any other contracted executive director, as an intermediary to spend public funds impermissibly is, at best, careless and, at worse, a calculated action by the RCLC and its governing members to avoid legal restrictions on use of public money,” the report says.

‘Inexplical’ confusion

The RCLC also failed to submit any annual audits to the state Department of Finance and Administration since 2013.

“The confusion among County officials and employees is inexplicable,” the report states, adding that the county sought guidance from the state Auditor’s Office five years ago and was told that as a local public body it was required to file an annual audit.

Los Alamos County Council Chairman David Izraelevitz responded to an email from the Journal, saying the allegations in the report were “serious” and are being reviewed along with other documents.

The council’s vice-chair, Christine Chandler, said she was troubled by the findings that suggest staff may have “recharacterized” certain expenditures and reimbursements to conceal errors or improprieties.

“If this proves to be true there must be accountability,” she wrote. “The county must thoroughly review the findings of the report to determine what corrective measures are necessary to ensure that these types of problems do not occur again.”

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