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Romero claims spending got OK

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Andrea Romero, the embattled Democratic Party candidate for the District 46 seat in the state House of Representatives and former director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, said Monday that almost all of the spending a recent state audit determined to be “improper” was in fact authorized by officials at the coalition.

Andrea Romero

Romero served as executive director of the RCLC – which advocates for environmental cleanup funding and jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory – from 2015 until last March, when her $140,000-a-year contract expired and at a time when the payments made to her and her consulting company were questioned by a citizens group.

Last week, the state Auditor’s Office released an audit of the RCLC that found $51,519 in “improper expenditure payments” were made to the coalition’s board members, Romero or the director who preceded her or other third parties from July 2014 to June 2018.

The audit said that more than half of the amount – $26,862 – was paid to Andrea Romero Consulting Inc.

The audit also reported that many of the expenditures weren’t authorized by the board.

“This is not true,” Romero said.

She said all reimbursements to her, including $1,876 in payments to her that she admits were improper, were authorized by either Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal, who was the RCLC’s treasurer at the time, or Los Alamos County, which serves as the fiscal agent for the coalition of the cities, counties and pueblos around Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The federal government provides half the coalition’s $200,000 annual budget, and local governments, mostly Los Alamos County, cover the rest.

Roybal, who is now the RCLC’s chairman, did not return phone messages from the Journal on Monday.

Romero said she takes full responsibility for some improper payments – including reimbursements for alcohol consumed at a dinner attended by board members and tickets to a Major League Baseball game during an RCLC board trip to Washington, D.C., last September – and paid back what she owed, based on Los Alamos County’s accounting.

In response to questions from the Journal, Romero said she initially paid back $1,295 through deductions from her pay. She later wrote a check for another $581.

Romero told the Journal last week that neither she nor any RCLC board member “knowingly or deliberately” violated any standard for reimbursement, and she continues to contend that both the state audit and a Los Alamos County audit reached the same conclusion.

But after reading Romero’s comment in the Journal’s story, state Auditor Wayne Johnson disputed her claim.

“The assertion that the audit did not find a knowing or deliberate violation is inaccurate,” Johnson said. “The audit found multiple violations of state law that may or may not have been deliberate.”

He said his office was still reviewing new information to determine whether reopening the investigation or referring the case to law enforcement is appropriate, “given the strong indications of a systematic and willful effort to interfere with the outcome of an audit.”

Romero also took exception with an audit conducted by the Albuquerque law firm Adams+Crow that was commissioned by Los Alamos County and released last week.

She said the audit suggests that some reimbursement practices were undertaken to avoid the approval process. It refers to “corrective” efforts that “may constitute efforts to intentionally mislead others and/or conceal misconduct.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Romero said.

The audits focus on RCLC travel policies, and Romero said it was she who first raised concerns about them last October – before she was a candidate for House District 46 and before the citizens group Northern New Mexico Protects starting filing public records requests regarding travel reimbursements made to her.

She said that effort was to improve the RCLC’s reimbursement policies, not to try to correct spending after the fact.

Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess also discounted the idea that county employees engaged in attempts to purposely mislead or conceal.

“I personally disagree with implications by representatives of Adams and Crow that county employees or elected officials intentionally misled or attempted to conceal any wrongdoing,” he said, adding that county staffers are held to high standards and that over the years state financial audits have not identified any significant findings.

Meanwhile, Northern New Mexico Protects wrote a letter to the Attorney General’s Office over the weekend asking for a criminal investigation into the reimbursements and any cover-up efforts.

Romero defeated incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo – who faces accusations of sexual harassment lodged by a lobbyist and which Trujillo denies – to win the House 46 Democratic nomination in June.

There is no Republican candidate for the House District 46 seat in the November general election. But Heather Nordquist, who has been an officer of Northern New Mexico Protects and was a Trujillo supporter in the primary, is mounting a write-in candidacy for the position.