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Auditor: ABQ Councilor Peña’s trip cost city $4K too much

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s state auditor says the city of Albuquerque should ask City Councilor Klarissa Peña for repayment after his office found taxpayers spent triple what regulations appeared to allow for a 2019 trip.

In a letter to Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and the City Council, State Auditor Brian Colón said his office’s review of Peña’s 14-day trip to the East Coast found “several concerning instances of failure to follow and or enforce regulations and policies” that led to more than $4,000 in estimated extra costs.

Albuquerque City Councilor Klarissa Peña

His office launched its investigation – and a separate travel examination into Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin – in response to complaints it received. It released letters on each Friday, referencing what it calls “potential violations” of city ordinance and regulations in Peña’s case and “potential violations” of county resolution and policies in Griffin’s case.

Colón said in an interview that elected officials often rely on staff to ensure compliance, but certain requests may put those employees in uncomfortable positions. He said elected officials should “err on the side of caution” when there are questions about their own adherence to regulations, and that clear-cut policies make that easier.

“We do have a higher obligation and standard to follow for ourselves because the tone at the top matters,” Colón said. “Any kind of situation where we err in favor of ourselves instead of the taxpayer is going to be seen as inappropriate by the public, as it should be.”

Peña had traveled last year to the National League of Cities conference in Philadelphia and to meet with the state’s congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. The then-City Council president, who has said she is afraid of flying, traveled via train with her husband and grandchildren.

The city paid for Peña to travel in what Colón’s letter called “luxury accommodations” – family bedrooms that cost $2,767 more than if she had bought a single coach ticket, according to the investigation.

In addition, she received extra per diem payments, having received food money on days when she had food provided by Amtrak and for three days she spent in New York without conducting any city business.

She also received a higher per diem rate than she should have for some of her travel days, the investigation found.

The investigation estimated the trip would have cost $1,916 if regulations had been followed. The city ultimately paid $6,352.

The state auditor “recommends the City seek reimbursement of the funds that were allowed and paid in excess of amounts permissible,” Colón wrote.

Peña’s office said Friday she was unavailable for an interview but provided a written statement.

“When the State Auditor’s office began its review of my (May/June) 2019 travel, I did commit to reimbursing the city for any determined unallowable costs. I also called for a review of City and Council travel policies,” Peña wrote. “After reading the findings in today’s letter from the State Auditor’s office, it is clear that there are opportunities for improvement to these policies.”

Colón’s letter also asked the city to provide a “detailed corrective action plan” within 30 days.

Albuquerque City Council President Pat Davis had earlier this year created a council subcommittee to study existing travel rules and make recommendations for potential changes. He said Friday that the subcommittee had conducted research and should be presenting its recommendations at an upcoming council meeting.

Otero County

Also on Friday, Colón wrote to Otero County commissioners about his office’s investigation into allegations that Griffin had misused county money.

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin

The investigation into Griffin – also the Cowboys for Trump founder whose recent “go back to Africa” comments sparked controversy – stem from a September trip to Washington, D.C., for a one-day conference.

Otero County Commissioner Lori Beis attended the same conference but took a plane while Griffin chose to drive.

Afterward, Griffin requested $3,000 in reimbursement – $2,000 more than Beis and $500 over budget.

Colón said although the county was later reimbursed the full amount, his office is concerned about future waste due to the lack of policy adherence and adequate internal controls – “especially for those in a position of power and authority.”

Aside from finding that Griffin exceeded his travel budget, Colón’s letter said the commissioner did not adhere to policies. Colón also determined Griffin went to New York and spent three or four days “unrelated to County business” after a review of his social media posts.

Despite the red flags, Colón said the reimbursements were “ultimately approved” by Otero County and, upon review of travel vouchers, noted “concerning instances of potential override of controls.”

For instance, Griffin’s was the only signature on his own reimbursement check.

A few months after the trip, Colón’s letter said, a resolution – drafted by Beis – was proposed in Otero County to require prior approval for commissioner travel, as well as other reimbursement guidelines.

“It failed, with two votes against it,” he wrote. “The (auditor’s office) was disappointed to learn of this failed resolution as it was appeared to be geared toward necessary preventative internal controls.”

Colón’s letter said his office “strongly encourages” the county to revisit these efforts.

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