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Fresco Funds Paid Salaries

Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
By 2011 Dan Boyd
Albuquerque Journal
Journal Capitol Bureau

          The president and CEO of a nonprofit foundation that raises money for the National Hispanic Cultural Center acknowledged Monday that some capital outlay funding appropriated by the Legislature for a fresco project was used to help pay salaries of several staff members, including herself.
        "We know there have been some mistakes made, probably some by us, and I take full responsibility," said the foundation's president and CEO, Clara Apodaca. She added that mistakes were "certainly" made by the former Gov. Bill Richardson administration.
        "They didn't give me instructions," she said. "It was very poor accounting, actually, on their part."
        The Legislature appropriated the money as capital outlay funds for a fresco project at the cultural center. The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, who took office Jan. 1, says the public works money should have been used only for work on the fresco and that salaries and other administrative costs were not allowed.
        Apodaca, head of the cultural center foundation, told the Journal the $380,000 in challenged spending — including $150,000 in salaries over three years— was fully disclosed. She said she was never told by state officials in Richardson's administration that such expenditures weren't permissible.
        Apodaca said the work for which she and staffers were paid involved providing information to legislators — who apparently appropriated the same funds that the foundation staffers were paid — but she said the work did not amount to lobbying.
        "I wouldn't call it lobbying," she said when asked about the foundation's presence in Santa Fe. "When we went to the Legislature, we just tried to give the legislators a lot of information about the center and the fresco."
        Apodaca and the other foundation officials never registered as lobbyists.
        The new leadership at the state's Department of Cultural Affairs is challenging the spending of state funds by the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation and is seeking repayment of nearly $380,000 from capital outlay money provided for the fresco project.
        On March 31, Apodaca sent the agency a check for the unspent portion of the appropriation, totaling $138,361.
        Capital outlay monies already expended by the foundation went for documentaries and DVDs, in addition to the salaries, according to the department.
        Cultural Affairs Secretary Veronica Gonzales has ordered a "full and independent audit of the fresco project."
        Apodaca told the Journal that, pending results of that audit, the foundation stands ready to repay the remainder of the approximately $380,000.
        "I welcome that audit," Apodaca said Monday. "If that audit shows I've got to give some of that money back, I'm more than happy to do so."
        Capital outlay spending is generally restricted to "bricks and mortar," or construction-related costs.
        In a March 30 letter to Apodaca, Gonzales indicated that paying staff for labor isn't generally allowable and was specifically not allowed in connection with the fresco project.
        "Such appropriations can only be used on capital expenditures, unless there is clear language — absent in the fresco's appropriations — authorizing other expenditures," Gonzales wrote.
        The $150,000 used to pay foundation staffers stemmed from work done during legislative sessions in 2006, 2007 and 2008, according to an internal audit sent by the foundation to then-Cultural Affairs Secretary Stuart Ashman in December 2010.
        The audit shows Apodaca received about half of that money and other foundation staffers or contractors received the rest.
        In all, 18 legislators secured a total of $812,5000 in capital outlay funds in 2007 and 2008 for the historical fresco by renowned New Mexico artist Frederico Vigil.
        Tsunami of projects
        Several of those lawmakers said Monday they still consider the project to be worthwhile.
        Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said a "tsunami" of capital outlay projects during the Richardson years meant insufficient oversight of how appropriations were being spent.
        "The whole thing was too much, too fast," Ortiz y Pino said. "I don't think anybody knew what the rules were. They should have been notified upfront."
        Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said a more thorough review of capital outlay spending should be conducted.
        "We do have to look at capital outlay and the way these projects are put together and monitored," he said.
        Meanwhile, Apodaca said Monday that she had a signed contract with Ashman, the former head of the Department of Cultural Affairs, for spending the appropriated money and presented purchase orders to the Department of Finance and Administration, which then issued checks to the foundation without raising questions.
        "I almost treated this like it was any other grant that we take (out) administrative costs," Apodaca said.
        "I didn't think anybody was ever going to question how this money was being spent, because we completed a very historical exhibit," she said.
        However, a former board member of the center, Matt Martinez, had complained at a board of directors meeting in November 2010 that the project should be audited. He also claimed the foundation used the money to pay salaries, which Apodaca denied.
        The audit currently being conducted on the fresco project is expected to be completed by the end of April, according to the Department of Cultural Affairs.
        The fresco, which was opened to the public in October 2010, occupies the inside of a torreón that greets visitors to the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
        Apodaca said infrastructure for the fresco display, including flooring, lighting and climate control, still needs to be completed.
        The vice chairwoman of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation, lawyer and former state Sen. Janice Paster, D-Albuquerque, questioned the motives of some of Apodaca's critics and defended the foundation chief. She said efforts to discredit Apodaca could "do damage to a great institution."
        Paster called Apodaca hardworking and "the most talented fundraiser I've ever met."
        Apodaca, a former New Mexico first lady, is the ex-wife of former Gov. Jerry Apodaca.

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