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Feds pulled $100K grant for LANL clean-up coalition

SANTA FE – The U.S. Department of Energy, which has covered half of the annual budget for the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities over the years, cut out any funding for the coalition in the current fiscal year.

But the loss of federal dollars for the coalition, which has been embroiled in controversy and investigations over its finances since early last year, shouldn’t keep the group from executing its mission, for now, says RCLC Executive Director Eric Vasquez. He expects the loss of DOE dollars to be temporary.

Until this fiscal year, the coalition made up of nine cities, counties and tribes in northern New Mexico, received $100,000 a year from the DOE. Vasquez says the coalition is expecting the funding to eventually be restored.

“We’re not anticipating not receiving the funding (again in the future),” Vasquez said in a phone interview. “Basically, we’re thinking this year we’ll be fine until after all the investigations are over.”

Vasquez said federal funding was hung up by an internal DOE probe into the its own handling of the annual grant to the RCLC.

In April, the Journal reported on a DOE investigation involving the grant. The fact the coalition never received any federal money this year was first reported recently by the on-line Los Alamos Reporter, based on coverage of a June 7 RCLC meeting.

The DOE investigation came in the wake of an audit commissioned by Los Alamos County, the fiscal agent for the RCLC, and a subsequent special audit by the State Auditor’s Office released last August that identified 18 negative findings, including potential non-compliance with a DOE grant “specifically with regard to explicitly prohibited lobbying.”

Lobbying has been a major part of what the RCLC does. Coalition leaders, including local elected officials, have traveled regularly to Washington to lobby for more hazardous waste clean-up money for Los Alamos National Laboratory and promote more jobs at the lab. The group also lobbied the state Legislature to pass a law to mandate that even non-profit operators of LANL must pay state gross receipts taxes.

A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday confirmed that it was conducting an ongoing review of the matter.

Vasquez said this week the RCLC had resolved or was working to resolve the other 17 issues identified in the State Auditor’s report. He said that based on informal conversations he’s had with DOE officials he expects the federal agency’s internal investigation to be completed soon and that federal funding could be available for the fiscal year starting July 1.

And if it isn’t? “We’ll revisit that,” Vasquez said, adding that the RCLC can continue to operate on its reserve funds and annual contributions from its member communities.

According to documents on the RCLC website, the coalition received $109,500 from the nine entities it represents — Española, Santa Fe, Taos, and Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties, and Jemez and Ohkay Owingeh pueblos. With more than $187,000 in expenditures, RCLC operated at a $75,000 loss this fiscal year.

Vasquez said the RCLC could operate for another year without DOE funding, but it could get “tricky” if it had to function without the DOE funding during the fiscal year that ends in 2021.

The local audits were set off by disclosure of coalition documents that showed spending on alcohol and baseball tickets during coalition visits to Washington, among other issues under former RCLC director Andrea Romero. Romero, now a state representative, repaid the coalition for some expenses.