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LANL coalition vows changes in spending, reimbursement

ESPAÑOLA – The Regional Coalition of LANL Communities will comply with all of the recommendations in a recent state audit that found numerous problems and law violations within the coalition finances, most of them having to do with how it handled reimbursements to its executive director.

The group’s new director Eric Vasquez said that the kinds of questionable expenses that have fueled criticism of the coalition and its former director Andrea Romero — now the Democratic nominee for northern Santa Fe County’s House District 46 — “simply will not happen anymore.”

RCLC plans to go beyond the recommendations and hire an independent accountant to oversee its finances and grant requirements and an attorney to make sure the coalition stays in compliance with the law, said Vasquez.

The RCLC is made up of cities, counties and pueblos and advocates for environmental clean-up funding for Los Alamos National Laboratory and local economic development efforts by the lab

The audit released earlier this month by the State Auditor’s Office cited several violations of state law, including failure to comply with the state’s constitutional “anti-donation” clause against public resources going to private entities or individuals and statutes covering per diem and mileage costs, as well as rules governing Department of Energy grant requirements. The DOE provides half of the coalition’s $200,000 annual budget.

While hiring of legal counsel was on the agenda for possible action at the coalition board’s meeting at Española Friday, no action was taken due to lack of a quorum. But the proposal was supported by board members.

“There’s a lot of benefit to working with legal counsel on RCLC and to help us to move forward in the right direction and make sure we’re staying within the parameters of the law,” said Henry Roybal, a Santa Fe County commissioner who serves as the RCLC chairman.

The RCLC will no longer provide reimbursements to its executive director, or any others who contract with RCLC, except under certain circumstances and only with prior approved by the board.

The RCLC recently hired the non-profit Chicano Por La Causa to perform executive director services and installed Vasquez in the position of director. The two-year contract pays $169,288 per year, but doesn’t allow for reimbursements for such expenses as meals or travel. In addition, the RCLC’s travel budget was reduced from $30,000 to $5,000 per year.

Romero, director until earlier this year, was paid $140,000 per year and was permitted to submit reimbursements for meals and travel, for herself and board members whose costs she covered with her credit card.

Vasquez said about 80 percent of what’s cited in the state audit has to do with improper reimbursement payments. He said Los Alamos County, the RCLC’s fiscal agent, is developing a policy for reimbursements. “We are eliminating the vast majority of transactions that would even be problematic,” Vasquez said. “A lot of these transactions that have occurred, they simply will not happen anymore.”

Santa Fe City Councilor Peter Ives said that given almost all the reimbursements that had been paid to Romero were vetted by Los Alamos County and approved by the board treasurer, he didn’t believe anyone intentionally broke laws. “It appears that while there were improper expenditures, virtually everything was authorized in some capacity or another. So I don’t see the nefarious intent behind this,” he said.