Editorial: Scandal dumps cold water on UNM research center

You would think that most people would want to know if the person whose name they plan to use to tout their newest research center has been publicly exposed in a corruption scandal.

Yet Carlos Rey Romero, UNM’s vice president for research and compliance, apparently didn’t think the fact that David Korenfeld, the former head of Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua), had resigned in disgrace after he got busted for using a government helicopter to take his family on the first leg of a family trip to Vail, Colo., was a big enough deal to tell UNM regents about.

Instead, he simply recommended they name UNM’s newest water research center after Mr. Junket – whose name came along with a $450,000 donation.

Rey Romero has since said he didn’t think the scandal would be “problematic” because Korenfeld tweeted an apology. Sorry. It doesn’t take 140 characters to know that was the wrong call.

In fact, Korenfeld resigned in April 2015 after photos were circulated on social media showing him and his family using commission helicopters for personal travel. Korenfeld apologized on Twitter, calling it an “inexcusable error.” A federal anti-corruption agency fined him about 649,000 pesos, or roughly $42,500. Subsequently, it was revealed this wasn’t an isolated incident and Korenfeld was a frequent flyer in terms of using the government chopper for personal trips.

As head of the water commission, Korenfeld oversaw the transfer of millions of dollars in contracts to the nonprofit ANEAS de Mexico, that in turn funded the UNM center. And he served on the ANEAS board before his time as Conagua director, then returned there after he resigned and was a board member when it made the donation in his name.

In April, the regents acted on Rey Romero’s advice and named the center, housed in the Latin American Institute for Public Policy and Leadership on the main campus, after Korenfeld.

That sparked a flurry of outrage on social media, mostly in Mexico, and among anti-corruption activists in Mexico. Korenfeld then asked the university to remove his name, saying it would be inappropriate for the center to be named for a living person. On May 26, UNM signed a new agreement with ANEAS, officially changing the name from “Centro David Korenfeld in Water Governance Studies” to the “Center in Water Governance Studies.”

Why a Mexican nongovernment organization would give UNM this kind of money – in a country with myriad needs related to water – remains a bit of a puzzler.

Rey Romero’s poor judgment has become an embarrassment for UNM and the regents, who had to do a 180. That was the right thing to do. It’s not unusual for top officials, such as university regents, to adopt recommendations from staff, assuming staff did the homework. In this case, the homework was done, just not turned in.

And considering the scandal was widely reported, it seems odd no red flags went up about it or the potential for conflicts of interests.

Even though UNM has inked a new contract with ANEAS, this would be a good time to take a hard look at whether it is appropriate. Going forward, unusual business arrangements and naming honors should trigger closer scrutiny.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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