Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Auditor Slams Handling of Funds
By Colleen Heild
Journal Staff Writer
Poor accounting of how federal money was spent by then-Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron's office has left state-hired auditors unable to say whether the current Secretary of State's Office is financially stable.
State Auditor Hector Balderas, who on Tuesday released an audit on the finances of the agency, said the problems amounted to "severe mismanagement of federal funds."
"The inability of the auditors to express an opinion on the Secretary of State's Office's financial condition and the poor accountability for federal funds puts the operations of the secretary of state at serious risk," Balderas said in a statement.
The annual state audit covered the period from July 1, 2006 to June 2007, including the first six months of current Secretary of State Mary Herrera's administration.
Lingering questions involving the expenditure of nearly $6.3 million for a voter education campaign by Vigil-Giron in 2004 and 2006 continues to impact the current administration, the state audit found.
"I'm still extremely concerned," Balderas told the Journal on Tuesday. "The overall fiscal management was called into question and our auditors were just not confident enough to give them a clean bill of health."
A separate federal audit released last year couldn't account for more than $3 million of the $6.3 million paid by Vigil-Giron to media consulting firm A. Gutierrez and Associates.
Vigil-Giron's agency apparently made upfront payments to the consultant and didn't require detailed receipts for the work done.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has said that some of the money might have to be reimbursed by the state.
Herrera said Tuesday that her office has proposed a measure to "release" taxpayers from having to repay the $6.3 million to the federal government.
"We are hopeful that the Legislature passes this bill," the statement said. "New Mexicans should be protected."
Among its findings, the state audit determined Vigil-Giron's office inappropriately used nearly $30,000 in federal voter education funds to enhance the agency's Web site.
Balderas said enhancing a Web site was "clearly not central to the HAVA (Help America Vote Act) mission."
He also reported that, under Vigil-Giron, the agency failed to correctly deposit funds, provide reports and properly document expenditures.
Vigil-Giron, who now works for the state's Department of Workforce Solutions, dismissed the new state audit as politically motivated.
"This is old news," she said. "Why release an audit report that's seven months old, two years after I'm gone?"
The audit reiterated federal findings that consultant Gutierrez was paid in excess of the maximum amount allowed under the contract with Vigil-Giron's agency by more than $323,060.
The contract arrangement itself appeared to violate state procurement law, the federal audit found.
Balderas said Herrera's hiring of a fiscal officer should help "their chances of improving their operation."
Balderas said numerous ethics bills pending in the Legislature would increase the responsibility of the secretary of state.
"So the quicker they can get their finances in better shape, (the better) the probability that potentially these new responsibilities will also be carried out effectively," the auditor said.