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IG: Embattled coalition should return up to $300K to DOE

SANTA FE, N.M. — This article has been changed from an earlier version to clarify that while the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities and Los Alamos County blamed each other for improper mingling of federal and local funds, the Inspector General said that the coalition, as the recipient of DOE funds, was responsible, and not its fiscal agent, the county.

SANTA FE – The U.S. Department of Energy’s inspector general is recommending that the department seek reimbursement of up to $300,000 in DOE grant money that a coalition of local governments in northern New Mexico didn’t properly account for.

In addition, the new report by DOE’s Office of Inspector General says the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities “engaged in activities prohibited by the U.S. Code and the terms of the grant agreement.”

The report focuses on comingling of DOE funds and money provided by local governments.

“Due to the comingling of funds, RCLC could not demonstrate how Department funds were used, and we were unable to determine the extent to which RCLC spent Department funds on allowable activities,” the report states. “As a result of those issues, we are questioning $300,000 in Department of Energy grant funds provided to RCLC, for which the Department should seek appropriate reimbursement.”

According to financial documents posted on the RCLC’s website, as of Aug. 31 the RCLC had a total of $302,255 in assets.

Los Alamos County, the coalition’s fiscal agent, acknowledged comingling of funds but said the coalition never informed the county to implement stricter financial controls, while the RCLC said it relied on the county “to implement appropriate accounting controls,” the new report says.

The IG concluded that as the recipient of the federal funds, the coalition – and not its fiscal agent, the county – was responsible.

The funds in questions are those the RCLC received from Sept. 30, 2015, to June 30, 2018, and were disbursed in three annual payments of $100,000 each.

State Rep. Andrea Romero served as executive director of the RCLC during most of that period under a $169,000 per year contract.

After a state audit and another audit commissioned by Los Alamos County confirmed improper expenses, Romero apologized and paid back $1,876 in reimbursements she had received.

The coalition issued a statement Wednesday in response to the report but it didn’t address the negative findings.

“The RCLC is pleased to see the Department of Energy Inspector General report issued and is working with the Department of Energy to provide them with the information they need to complete this process,” the statement said. “The RCLC looks forward to continuing to represent our local communities to the Washington leadership who control the lab.”

The coalition came under fire last year when a citizens group, using a public record request, uncovered questionable spending on travel, alcohol and Major League baseball tickets. Questions also have been raised about use of DOE grant funds for lobbying.

Lobbying has been a major part of what the RCLC does. Coalition leaders, including local elected officials, formerly 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.

The report concedes that the RCLC is not prohibited from lobbying. “RCLC was, however, expressly prohibited from expending Department of Energy grant funds on lobbying activities,” according to the report.

The RCLC is funded annually by about $200,000 in public funds — half from the DOE and the other half from local governments. The coalition includes Los Alamos, 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.

The Inspector General made recommendations to the DOE’s Environmental Management Consolidated Business Center related to recovering costs that are unallowable under the code, including expenses for the purchases of alcohol, entertainment and sporting events, and improving DOE oversight of the RCLC’s spending and activities. THe Business Center, responsible for awarding and overseeing the grants, is criticized in the report for a lack of oversight.

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

The Regional Coalition’s comment on the IG’s report maintained it is the “voice” of local communities in regards to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“There are benefits and challenges to hosting a DOE facility,” the coalition said. “Because the lab is part of our community, it is vital that our local leaders are a part of the conversation. For too long our communities have been impacted by decisions from the federal and the state governments with no participation at the local level. We need a voice. We need a seat at the table. The RCLC is our voice.”

Critics of the coalition have argued it does little that the state’s congressional delegation doesn’t do in terms of seeking clean-up funding for the lab and that it has never served as a critical watchdog on lab activities.

“The Regional Coalition is not the effective lobbying voice for clean up at Los Alamos that it claims to be because it condones DOE’s plan for cleanup on the cheap that will leave the vast majority of radioactive and toxic wastes permanently buried above our groundwater,” Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said in a statement Wednesday.

“The Coalition should pay the American taxpayer back whatever it improperly spent and be terminated. At a minimum, the City of Santa Fe should resign from this discredited Coalition right away.”

 


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