SANTA FE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Energy’s Inspector General’s Office is investigating the handling of DOE grants to the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, a consortium of nine northern New Mexico communities that advocates for jobs and federal environmental cleanup funding at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
It’s the latest financial issue for the coalition, whose former director left last year amid controversy over coalition spending on travel, alcohol and Major League baseball tickets.
Eric Vasquez, now executive director of the RCLC, said he spoke briefly with Doug Hintze, manager of the DOE’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, in February about the investigation and reported that to the RCLC board last month.
He said in a series of text messages to the Journal last week that he had little information about the investigation and that the DOE Inspector General’s Office hasn’t formally notified the RCLC about it.
Vasquez said that it’s his understanding that the probe is an internal investigation into “the way DOE handled the grant process.”
The RCLC is funded annually by about $200,000 in public funds – half from the federal government and the other half from local governments. Most of the local funding is provided by Los Alamos County, which serves as fiscal agent for the RCLC. Other communities contributing are Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos counties, the cities of Española and Santa Fe, the town of Taos, and the pueblos of Jemez and Ohkay Owingeh.
A spokeswomen with the DOE’s Inspector General’s office in Washington, D.C., said the department could neither confirm nor deny the existence of investigative activities. Hintze could not be reached for comment.
Last year, the state Auditor’s Office conducted a special audit of the RCLC after a citizens group raised questions about reimbursements for travel and dining expenses – including alcohol – under the coalition’s executive director at the time, Andrea Romero. By then, Romero had launched what proved to be a successful bid for the state House of Representatives in northern Santa Fe County’s District 46.
Among the 18 findings in the special audit was “Potential non-compliance with DOE Grant specifically with regard to explicitly prohibited lobbying.”
“The RCLC appears to be engaged in prohibited lobbying activities,” the audit states. “The RCLC documentation provided contains a statement that the RCLC ‘has positioned itself as sole, consistent lobbying body for legacy waste cleanup dollars to LANL at the Congressional level.’ ”
It goes on to say that statements made in a Feb. 22, 2018, letter from Romero “outline state and federal activities by RCLC which appear to be lobbying.”
The letter cited in the audit addresses RCLC’s efforts to pass a bill during the 2018 legislative session that would have removed a gross receipts tax exemption for nonprofit contractors running national laboratories in New Mexico, which passed the Legislature, but was vetoed by the governor at the time, Republican Susana Martinez.
A version of the same bill was signed into law recently by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democrat who succeeded Martinez.
The letter also mentions engagement with National Nuclear Security Administration and U.S. House Armed Services Committee to ensure that lab revenue is protected.
Restrictions on grant money
The RCLC has always made pushing for increased federal funding for cleanup of long-term radioactive and hazardous waste at LANL – work that creates local jobs – one of its stated goals.
But a condition of the DOE grant is a restriction on federal lobbying efforts to influence action at the congressional level.
The law states that money appropriated by Congress cannot be used directly or indirectly to pay for personal services, advertisements, or written material intended to influence a member of Congress or a government official to either to oppose or favor legislation.
“The RCLC may have failed to abide by the terms of the DOE Grant when it ‘Engaged with NNSA and House Armed Services on alternatives and discussion on our strategy to ensure this revenue is protected,’ ” the state audit said, quoting from Romero’s letter.
It goes on to say that “the RCLC’s self-described state lobbying activities may have violated” the U.S. code addressing lobbying activities. That could result in a claw back of “approximately $372,000,” according to the audit that was undertaken during the tenure of former State Auditor Wayne Johnson.
On its website, the RCLC says that it “advocates for sufficient funding, responsible policy and safe practices in the cleanup of all environmental nuclear waste generated at LANL.”
At least in the recent past, the coalition’s mission statement said the coalition was designed to act as “one voice” for local communities to inform decision-makers in Washington about what the lab needs for cleanup funding, which in turn creates local jobs.
Some of the questionable expenses that spurred last year’s audit, such as spending for the baseball tickets, came on a trip by Romero and coalition board members, including local elected leaders like the mayors of Santa Fe and Española, to visit with federal officials.
The coalition’s advocacy work has routinely been called “lobbying” in news articles over the years, a description never challenged by the coalition before.
Coalition disputes audit
In response to the state audit’s finding in regard to lobbying, the RCLC disagreed, saying a “minority fraction” of RCLC activities and expenditures relate to advocacy activities. It said that it has enough money from the contributions it receives from its local government and pueblo members to cover those costs, so the restricted DOE grant revenues aren’t used for advocacy purposes.
RCLC went on to say that the contract with its new executive director, Vasquez, who succeed Romero, requires that invoices be split up between those that are applicable to the DOE grant and those that are not.
Vasquez told the Journal that RCLC has adopted every recommendation by the state Auditor’s Office.
“These changes have been implemented or are in the process of implementation now,” he said. “We believe we are now in full compliance with all regulations and look forward to continuing to do the work of providing a voice for our local communities impacted by the national lab in our backyard.”
Asked if RCLC was concerned about losing a big chunk of its funding, Vasquez said, ” We are confident that we have corrected the shortcomings of previous management and are in a good position to continue the important work of providing a voice to Northern New Mexico communities.”
In a phone interview Thursday, Henry Roybal, a Santa Fe County Commissioner who serves as chairman of the RCLC board, said he currently has no reason to believe the RCLC is in danger of losing any of its federal funding.
“I think the DOE is doing its due diligence that I would think would be expected based on all the stuff that happened,” he said.
Several of the state audit findings had to do with improper reimbursements made to Andrea Romero Consulting. Others had to do with insufficient accounting controls, budget irregularities and compliance with the state Audit Act.
Rep. Romero returned a phone message from the Journal with an email that said she is no longer associated with the RCLC and referred questions to the RCLC. She said she has not been contacted by investigators.
A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office said last week that the office it continues to review possible illegal activity as a result of the special audit.
Asked if it was investigating either Romero or the RCLC based on the contents of the audit, David Carl said in an email, “We can confirm the Office of the Attorney General has received a public referral and this matter is under review. All complaints received by the Office of the Attorney General are fully reviewed and appropriate action is taken, but we remain deeply concerned about any misuse of public funds by officials.”