New group takes over embattled Regional Coalition of LANL Communities

SANTA FE, N.M. — This story has been changed from the original version to include information about Andrea Romero’s service as a member of the board of advisors for Chicanos Por La Causa.

Roger Gonzales doesn’t remember anything about the ball game, an 8-0 victory by the visiting Atlanta Braves over the host Washington Nationals on a cloudy but comfortable night last September in the nation’s capital.

Most memorable to him was scaling the steep steps to their seats in Section 416 of the stadium’s upper deck.

“I think we were in the fourth row from the top,” said Gonzales, who was offered a ticket to the game by Andrea Romero, then the executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC), a partnership of nine cities, towns, counties and pueblos that advocates for funding for nuclear waste cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory and economic development around the lab.

Now, Gonzales is president of the nonprofit group that was recently awarded the contract for executive director services of the RCLC after its contract with the consulting firm of former coalition director Andrea Romero was not renewed, amid controversy, last winter.

And Gonzales has a connection with Romero besides that baseball game. It happens that he is now in the position of landlord to Romero, who operates an ostrich ranch with an expired lease on property owned by Chicanos Por La Causa, the group Gonzales heads.

Also, Romero serves as a member of the advisory board for Chicanos Por La Causa, according to information on the campaign website for Romero’s race for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

Reimbursment controversy

Tickets to the Nationals game were one of the improper expenses for which Romero received reimbursement that were cited in a special audit released earlier this month by the state Auditor’s Office and in an investigative report commissioned by Los Alamos County, which serves as fiscal agent for the RCLC.

Romero is now the Democratic nominee for the House District 46 seat in northern Santa Fe County and continues to face criticism over the financial problems at the coalition.

Twelve tickets totaling $307 were among more than $50,000 in what the state Auditor’s Office says were improper expenses made over a four-year period for entertainment, travel and meals that included alcohol – all of which were reviewed by Los Alamos County employees and approved for reimbursement by either the RCLC board or its treasurer. Nearly $27,000 in reimbursements were paid to Andrea Romero Consulting.

The game was listed as a nighttime activity on the RCLC board’s itinerary for a four-day trip to Washington, D.C., last September to meet with government officials and attend a workshop on nuclear waste cleanup put on by the Energy Communities Alliance (ECA).

Gonzales is not even a baseball fan. He doesn’t recall what teams were playing, just that he was among a loose group of mostly New Mexicans at Nationals Park. “(Then-Española Mayor) Alice Lucero was there with her husband. There were some LANL people sitting behind us,” he said.

He recalls arriving late and leaving early. Gonzales was in Washington as a member of the U.S. Senate Republican Task Force on Hispanic Affairs, which serves in an advisory role to GOP senators. Many of the others sitting in Section 416 were in town for the ECA workshop. “It happened to be that I was there (in Washington, D.C.,) at the same time,” he said.

Romero also offered a ticket to Joe Sanchez, president of the LANL Major-Subcontractors, a group that also attended the ECA workshop. Rick Reiss, a Los Alamos County councilor who serves as treasurer on the ECA executive board, joined Romero and the others for the game. Six of the 12 RCLC tickets went unused.

New director’s contract

The RCLC recently went five months without an executive director.

Andrea Romero Consulting’s $140,000-per-year contract expired at the end of February, just as questions about the reimbursement payments were being raised and Romero was in the midst of a contentious, but successful, campaign in the June Democratic primary election for House District 46 against incumbent Carl Trujillo, who was fending off allegations of sexual harassment.

In the absence of a Republican candidate, the embattled Romero now squares off against write-in candidate Heather Nordquist, also a Democrat and a Trujillo supporter, in the November general election.

The RCLC board of directors in July accepted the bid of Chicanos Por La Causa-New Mexico (CPLC-NM), formerly known as Siete del Norte, for executive director services, to replace Romero’s firm. The two-year contract is for $169,288 per year and doesn’t allow for reimbursements.

According to the evaluation report (scored by Regional Coalition chairman Henry Roybal, a Santa Fe County Commissioner; Peter Ives, a Santa Fe city councilor; and Morrie Pongratz, a Los Alamos County councilor), the CPLC-NM tallied 86.6 points out of 100 in the competition for the coalition contract, beating out two other bidders.

Gonzales said CPLC-NM probably scored points with the committee for its fiscal record in the wake of the negative findings in the recent state audit and investigative report.

“I think what the coalition liked about us is the financial and fiscal controls that we have here,” he said. “We’re pretty confident that CPLC and all its subsidiaries are good stewards of money. And we weren’t going to jeopardize our multi-million-dollar portfolio for $168,000 or the squiggly pig, or whatever they drank.”

Gonzales was referring to a $28 glass of WhistlePig whiskey that showed up on a meal receipt approved for reimbursement from that same coalition trip to Washington. It was among several improper reimbursements for alcoholic beverages cited in the state auditor’s report.

Gonzales said one of CPLC’s main goals is to restore confidence in the Regional Coalition’s work.

“It’s unfortunate we’re spending so much time talking about things that have happened in the past versus our role and responsibility today,” he said. “We recognized it was time to restore not only the mission, but also the purpose of the coalition, and that’s what I think Eric (Vasquez) has done in his brief tenure here.”

Vasquez is new director

Eric Vasquez is Romero’s successor as RCLC’s executive director. He was hired by CPLC-NM specifically to serve in that position after it won the bid to provide director services to the Regional Coalition.

“CPLC was looking at this opportunity to basically take on the role of running the RCLC. Roger and I had a conversation and agreed to put a proposal together,” Vasquez said. He joined CPLC-NM about four years ago and became its president in 2017.

Vasquez and Gonzales knew each other from their common work in areas of economic development. Vasquez formerly worked as director of the Regional Economic Development Initiative, or REDI, which has a spinoff project that also recently faced a bad report from the state auditor over a northern New Mexico internet project. The issues were resolved after records were subpoenaed from contractors that worked on the project. Vasquez said that the internet endeavor had become separate from REDI by the time when he worked there.

When Vasquez left REDI in 2015, he went into partnership with Carol Clark, publisher of the Los Alamos Daily Post, in creating a sister publication, the Valley Daily Post, to cover news in the Española Valley. Now that he’s director of the RCLC, he says he has absolved himself from any editorial control over the Valley Daily Post, though he has retained his roughly one-third ownership stake.

He also did some consulting work and served a one-year stint as interim executive director of the Española Valley Chamber of Commerce, where he is still a member of the board of directors. He’s the spouse of state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, who after a primary win in June is the Democratic nominee for state land commissioner. He also worked for former Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish.

Last week, the publisher of the Rio Grande Sun wrote a scathing editorial that said the RCLC was a waste of taxpayer money and chastised it for hiring Vasquez.

“Readers may remember Vasquez as the former salaried Española Chamber of Commerce executive director who simultaneously had another full-time job operating a failed newsletter, sometimes from the Chamber’s offices,” wrote Robert Trapp, whose newspaper competes with the Valley Daily Post, which is now exclusively online.

“I disagree with some of his assessment,” Vasquez said when asked about the editorial. “But Robert Trapp runs a newspaper that has a long history of doing great investigative journalism. Although they don’t always get it right, I’m always happy to work with them.”

Vasquez said he doesn’t perceive his marriage to a legislator as a conflict of interest. “I don’t believe that at all. The RCLC is focused on trying to give a voice to communities on what happens at Los Alamos, so they can speak as one to members of the congressional delegation, the DOE and other entities that have influence in what happens at the lab,” he said.

He added that his wife is leaving the Legislature at the end of the year and if she’s elected land commissioner, he couldn’t perceive her ever having a conflict of interest with the work of the RCLC.

A Journal editorial has also called for the RCLC to be disbanded.

“I’ve heard those comments. I understand them. I think they are largely misinformed,” Vasquez said. “I think they don’t understand the purpose or don’t understand exactly why something like this is so valuable for a region that has been underrepresented on these issues for so long.” Gonzales said the criticism has been “distractive” to what the CPLC is trying to accomplish with the Regional Coalition.

“I think that once people start to see that the coalition has recognized some opportunity for improvement, is addressing those areas of concern, and is going to refocus its energy and efforts to its mission, I think you’ll start seeing some editorial minds change in a couple of months,” he said. “We just have to recognize now is not the time for distractive talk because … we want to make sure the community is united.”

Gonzales has also faced criticism. He was chief operations officer at the Mora school district in 2009 when an audit found financial irregularities, including the purchase of leather jackets and other items that were given to school officials and area legislators as gifts. School employees also testified that Gonzales was using sheriff deputies to deliver threatening letters to school employees and that he used public money from a district account for lobbying activities.

The Public Education Department stripped him of a license and fined him $16,000. “I truly believe that the man upstairs puts certain situations in your path so you can learn from them,” Gonzales told the Santa Fe New Mexican when asked about the matter during his campaign for Santa Fe’s House District 47 seat in 2016. “It was a very humbling experience.”

CPLC and the ostrich farm

Gonzales also wants people to understand what CPLC-NM is.

Nearly 50 years ago, CPLC was formed in Phoenix by people who felt the Latino population was being disenfranchised, Gonzales said. It built advocacy efforts around education, economic development, health and human services, and housing.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the Home Education Livelihood Program, or HELP, was formed. One of its spin-off organizations was the Siete del Norte Development Corp. For 43 years, it operated under that name, including after it was acquired as a subsidiary of CPLC in 2012. Siete del Norte formally changed its name to CPLC-New Mexico last November.

People around the Española area know Siete del Norte as facilitators of the Hunter Arts Agricultural Complex project that is planned to include a market, cafes, retail shops and a lowrider museum.

Gonzales says CPLC-NM also oversees three low-income tax credit programs in Farmington, Las Vegas and Taos, and is working on a opioid treatment program in Española.

Among its assets is a 1,000-acre former cattle ranch in Ribera in San Miguel County, part of which is leased by Tall Foods, a fledgling ostrich operation co-owned by Andrea Romero. Tall Foods started out to produce and sell ostrich eggs and meat, but Romero said in May the business was exploring marketing the eggs for growing antibodies that can help cure cholera. “Like many startups do, I decided to pivot to pursue opportunities in antibody and probiotics production, which could have an enormous positive impact,” she said.

Gonzales says Tall Foods has never paid rent on the property. Money was spent on improvements to the ranch, which had mostly sat idle for 40 years.

“She has made some investments on the property in lieu of rent,” he said, adding that the original 18-month lease – which commenced Aug. 16, 2015, prior to Gonzales taking over as president of what at the time was Siete del Norte – called for Tall Foods to invest the equivalent of $15,000 into the property during the term of the lease. The contract was extended in February 2017 and was in effect until June 30.

Gonzales said that Tall Foods benefitted from $52,000 in funding from Siete del Norte that was put into infrastructure at the ranch, including a well, pump, solar panels and road work.

Gonzales said the property is for sale. He said he sent a letter to Romero on Aug. 6 regarding the lease. “I basically told her they have to either renegotiate a lease or we’re going to have to ask them to kindly take their very large birds off the property,” he said.

Romero said on Wednesday she plans to keep her ostrich business going, although she does not intend to renew the lease. “I fully plan to do everything I can to grow and continue the ostrich business I’ve been building for years,” she said.

A listing of Romero’s “record of public and community service” on her campaign website says she has served on CPLC’s board of advisors since 2015.

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