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Editorial: LANL Coalition is what’s toxic in our governments

It’s time for the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities to go away. The organization – with an annual budget of $200,000 – was always something of an odd duck.

It is made up of cities, counties and pueblos located near Los Alamos National Laboratory, and says it has two goals: to push for promoting local economic development from the lab and advocate for federal money for cleanup of long-term radioactive and hazardous waste at LANL.

The big question about the coalition has always been: What does it do that New Mexico’s congressional delegation doesn’t when it comes to pushing for waste cleanup and local economic benefits from the lab? There’s no empirical evidence to show having local politicos lobby Washington for cleanup dollars has made a difference.

Now there are audits – one by the State Auditor’s Office and the other commissioned by Los Alamos County – on how the Regional Coalition spends its taxpayer dollars. About half of the $200,000 budget comes from the federal Department of Energy and the rest from local governments, mostly Los Alamos County. The audits were spurred by questions about travel reimbursements that emerged in a political context, as then-Regional Coalition executive director Andrea Romero began her successful Democratic primary run against incumbent Carl Trujillo for a Santa Fe County House seat.

Both audits are scathing. They describe how Romero, no longer with the coalition but the Democratic nominee to represent District 46, and the local elected officials who served on her board broke the law and the coalition’s own policies when they were reimbursed for travel, meals, entertainment – like Washington Nationals baseball games, albeit in the cheap seats – and booze.

More then $50,000 in spending was “improper,” the state audit says, without much elaboration. Expenses weren’t pre-approved by the board, as required. Romero disputes that, citing sign-offs by board members like Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal. She has re-paid $1,800 she acknowledges shouldn’t have been spent.

Romero, as director of the RCLC, is appropriately a target in this mess. But remember, she was being reimbursed for using her private credit card to pay for elected officials like Española and Santa Fe mayors and Los Alamos County councilors. They’re culpable, too.

The county-commissioned audit, done by a law firm, raised another issue. It says efforts were made by Los Alamos County personnel, after-the-fact, to “recharacterize” or “remedy” questionable spending and which “may constitute efforts to intentionally mislead others and/or conceal misconduct.” Romero says changes were being considered to get the coalition’s act together going forward. OK, but going back to change the rules instead of the bad behavior is not the way to move forward with accountability. And, yes, some of the audit findings may have a political tinge – State Auditor Wayne Johnson is a Republican and Democrat Romero is the target.

But there’s not much doubt the coalition’s financial controls were a mess, policy and law were ignored and people were spending money they shouldn’t have been.

The coalition is trying to regroup and hired another director on a six-figure contract. But somebody should pull the plug on the enterprise, which seems to exist as a redundant and small-time DOE effort to placate locals. Rather than delivering tangible, positive outcomes, it is eroding confidence in our government leaders.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.