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Regional coalition to discuss questionable finances

SANTA FE, N.M. — In the wake of two recently released reports harshly critical of how public funds were managed by the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities and its former executive director, two items were added to the agenda for today’s meeting of the coalition’s board of directors.

The board – made up of representatives from the nine cities, towns, counties and pueblos, and which advocates for jobs and funding for nuclear waste cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory – will hear a report on the RCLC’s finances and discuss hiring legal counsel.

The board may take action on the latter item during the meeting slated to begin at 1:30 p.m. at Española City Hall.

RCLC board chairman Henry Roybal, a Santa Fe County commissioner, says he asked to have the two items added and the agenda was updated on Tuesday in time to meet the 72-hour notice requirement of the state’s Open Meeting Act.

“I think we need to talk about it and make a decision because of the situation that surrounds us,” Roybal said this week. “I want to make sure that we’re following the letter of the law and, through legal counsel, they’ll make sure that we are.”

Andrea Romero

Earlier this month, a Los Alamos County-commissioned report that resulted from an independent investigation identified numerous problems with the coalition’s finances, many of them having to do with improper reimbursement payments made to former executive director Andrea Romero for travel, meals, alcohol and entertainment. Los Alamos County has been the RCLC’s fiscal agent and its staff approved expenses that are now under scrutiny.

Among the expenses called into question were costs for meals, booze and Major League Baseball tickets for Romero, board members and others during a trip to Washington, D.C., last September that were charged to Romero’s personal credit card and for which she was reimbursed.

The RCLC is taxpayer supported – its $200,000 annual budget is split between the federal government and local governments, with Los Alamos County providing most of the local share.

Romero is now the Democratic nominee for the House District 46 seat in northern Santa Fe County. She defeated District 46 incumbent Carl Trujillo, who was facing sexual harassment allegation that he denies, in a hotly contested Democratic primary in June.

Her contract with RCLC expired March 1 and was not renewed, soon after the allegations of improper payments were raised by a citizens group whose highest-ranking officers were supporters of Trujillo. There’s no Republican candidate in District 46 for the November general election.

However, a write-in candidacy is being mounted by Heather Nordquist, who until recently was executive vice-president of Northern New Mexico Protects, the citizens group that first raised questions about the RCLC reimbursements made to Romero. Nordquist supported Trujillo in the Democratic primary and contributed to his campaign.

State and county reports

The report commissioned by the Los Alamos County Council and prepared by a law firm says there were attempts by Los Alamos County personnel to “recharacterize” some of the RCLC’s practices relating to governance, policies and activities in order to, after the fact, “fix” accounting deficiencies.

More concerning, according to the authors of the report, is that some changes would have allowed Romero, as an independent contractor, “to circumvent the law” by becoming exempt from the coalition’s travel policy.

But the changes were never adopted by the RCLC.

The Los Alamos County Council, which approved spending up to $50,000 on the investigative report by the Adams+Crow law firm of Albuquerque, announced this week that the council will hold a special meeting on Sept. 6 to discuss the findings of the report and decide what to do next.

The report suggests RCLC could use a lawyer. It says that neither RCLC nor Los Alamos County “appear to have sought adequate legal counsel” with regard to organizational issues and were “careless in vetting compliance with state law.”

Days before the release of the Adams+Crow report, a special audit released by the state Auditor’s Office also cited a long list of negative findings, including many of the same issues about reimbursements to Romero. It also flagged several other potential improprieties relating to improper lobbying, budget irregularities, and potential violations of state rules for ethical conduct and governance.

The special audit found that between July 2014 and June 2018, a total of $51,519 in “improper expenditure payments” were made to the coalition’s board members, Romero or the director who preceded her. More than half of that amount – $26,862 – was paid to Andrea Romero Consulting Inc.

The state report says that some of the spending was not authorized by the RCLC board. Romero contests that finding, saying spending was approved beforehand or properly with receipts after the expenses were incurred.

State Auditor Wayne Johnson also said his office was still reviewing new information, including the results of the Adams+Crow investigation commissioned by Los Alamos County, “to determine if reopening the investigation or a referral to law enforcement is appropriate given the strong indications of a systemic and willful effort to interfere with the outcome of an audit.”

The Adams+Crow report mentions that a box of procurement documents related to the RCLC was recently found by Los Alamos County officials and its contents had not been reviewed prior to issuing the law firm’s report.

The special audit by the state Auditor’s Office also refers to incomplete records, saying, “Missing records can be indicators of more serious issues including fraud.”

Also on the agenda for today’s RCLC meeting is a briefing on the state auditor’s report and travel to a three-day national weapons lab cleanup workshop in Alexandria, Va., next month.

Romero hires attorney

Romero says she takes full responsibility for the mistakes that were made and that she has paid back all of the $1,876 in reimbursements paid to her that were deemed to be improper. She says neither she nor any member of the RCLC “knowingly or deliberately” did anything wrong.

Still, given the allegations brought against her by New Mexico Protects, Romero has hired Santa Fe attorney Dan Cron.

“Northern New Mexico Protects is making an unfounded accusation that there was criminal intent by Andrea and the coalition,” Neri Holguin, Romero’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “Los Alamos County and the state auditor have said that’s not true. To resolve this, Andrea has hired an attorney.”

But State Auditor Johnson disagrees with Holguin’s characterization of his office’s findings.

“The assertion that the audit did not find a knowing or deliberate violation is inaccurate,” he told the Journal in an email. “The audit found multiple violations of state law that may or may not have been deliberate.”

Romero, while she acknowledges there should not have been spending on booze and entertainment, also argues that no one benefitted financially from the errors that were made. “In fact, no one knew we were acting in error,” she said in a statement last weekend.

She says that’s because the RCLC had received some bad advice from county officials about which travel policy it was supposed to follow – the one used by Los Alamos County, the RCLC’s fiscal agent, or the travel policy that the RCLC board adopted in 2012. The board is made up of local elected officials and other representatives of its member governments and pueblos.

Romero said the coalition received bad advice from Los Alamos County about its obligation to submit annual audits to the state Department of Finance and Administration, which it hadn’t done in years, despite being told to file the yearly audits by a previous state auditor.

Romero says that all reimbursements made to her first went through Los Alamos County and were approved by the RCLC’s treasurer, so while some of them turned out to be improper, they were properly authorized.

Roybal’s role

Romero said that as RCLC treasurer at the time – Roybal, representing the Santa Fe County Commission on the coalition board – “had the responsibility to approve or disapprove all reimbursement requests. In practice, he shared this duty with Los Alamos County.”

She also says that she first raised questions about straightening out the travel policy last October after reimbursements for a flight taken by former Santa Fe Mayor and then-RCLC chairman Javier Gonzales were called into question.

Roybal, who served as RCLC treasurer from July 2017 until he replaced Gonzales as the coalition chairman in March, recalls that matter being raised then.

“I do remember that issue coming up,” he said. “It was around the same time period that I was questioning charges at the Bull Ring.”

Last August, Romero requested reimbursement for a $287 dinner at Santa Fe’s Bull Ring steak house at which alcohol was served and which was attended by Romero, Gonzales, Harris Walker of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and Kristin Henderson, an RCLC board member when she served as a Los Alamos County councilor.

Roybal questioned that expense in an email to Steven Lynne, Los Alamos County’s deputy county manager, that was sent on Sept. 19, 2017.

He told Lynne he wasn’t sure what the policy was with regard to reimbursements involving meals, but that the bill from the Bull Ring seemed rather high. He wrote that he wanted to make sure the reimbursements were “in compliance with the rules and regulations of the coalition.”

After receiving an explanation from Lynne, Roybal wrote back on Oct. 3 approving the reimbursement contingent on it being compliant with RCLC policy.

In the email, Roybal also accepts a clarification from Lynne about a reimbursement for a hotel room for Romero.

“It is also my understanding that the cost of the Dinner at the Bull Ring for 4 people is also an acceptable amount by the governing rules of the coalition,” he wrote, “if this is correct I approve the reimbursement.”

Roybal says he started asking more questions about the policy for reimbursements after that and requested a copy of the RCLC travel policy from Lynne. He said it took a while to finally receive the policy. When he asked what took so long, he said, Lynne told him he had to get a copy of the policy from Romero.

It turned out that for years, the RCLC was following the reimbursement policy used by Los Alamos County when it should have been following its own travel policy. The coalition policy prohibits reimbursements for expenses for non-coalition guests and does not allow for expenses of alcohol or entertainment, like baseball tickets.

Changes ‘unacceptable’

Christine Chandler, a Los Alamos County councilor who served on the RCLC board from January 2017 to June of this year, says Romero, Roybal and county staff started working on changes to the travel policy late last year. Chandler, a member of the Los Alamos County Council, is also a Democratic legislative nominee, for Los Alamos-centered House District 43. She faces Republican Lisa Shin in November.

Christine Chandler

Chandler wrote in an email this week that it wasn’t until January that she saw a draft of the revised travel policy, which as written would have exempted the executive director from the policy.

“I found that change to be unacceptable,” she wrote. “I questioned staff about the rationale for the changes and learned the RCLC Director (Romero) had not been complying with the travel policies. At that point, I insisted that we needed to understand the scope of the non-compliance and recommended to the Treasurer (Roybal) and the county staff that we alert the board to the issue and conduct a full review of expenditures and reimbursements.”

By then, Romero had announced her candidacy for the District 46 seat and Northern New Mexico Protects had begun questioning reimbursements she received and alleging misuse of public funds. Ultimately, it was two of Chandler’s colleagues on the County Council, Susan O’Leary and James Chrobocinski, who called for an investigation into the matter.

When it came time to consider renewing the RCLC’s contract with Andrea Romero Consulting in February, Chandler said that in light of the noncompliance issues “and attempts to minimize these actions as grounds for dismissal,” she refused to support renewal of the contract.

The RCLC recently hired a new executive director.

At its July meeting, it awarded a two-year contract to CPLC New Mexico, Inc., the New Mexico branch of the Phoenix-based nonprofit Chicanos Por La Causa. The new executive director is Eric Vasquez, a former policy analyst for ex-Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, and husband of state Rep. Stephanie Garcia-Richard, who is the Democratic nominee for state land commissioner this year and until recently program director for the Regional Economic Development Initiative. The contract is for $169,288 per year and includes all travel costs.