Thursday, May 29, 2008
Audit Faults Vigil-Giron Records On Spending
By Colleen Heild and Leslie Linthicum
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writers
Former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron paid an advertising company nearly $6.3 million for a voter education campaign, but a federal audit couldn't account for how more than $3 million of the money was spent.
The audit by the inspector general of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found inadequate record-keeping and that questionable payments had been made to the contractor, A. Gutierrez & Associates.
Auditors said Vigil-Giron authorized payments without requiring details supporting the charges.
Inspector General Curtis Crider told the Journal that Vigil-Giron and contractor Armando Gutierrez "basically agreed he did not need to keep the detailed records."
Sometimes payments were made in advance. For instance, Gutierrez submitted his first invoice for $2 million on the day after the effective date of the contract, the audit report stated, but later could not relate amounts billed to costs incurred.
Vigil-Giron dismissed any suggestion of wrongdoing and said she was the victim of a political attack.
The audit report also faulted Vigil-Giron, who left office in 2006, for awarding the contract in 2004 without following state procurement procedures and for exceeding the contract ceiling by more than $300,000.
Gutierrez is a Democratic media consultant with an impressive client list.
The company's Albuquerque business phone number was no longer in service Wednesday. A message said calls were being taken at a cell phone number, which also was listed on his agency's Web site.
Gutierrez didn't immediately return calls to that number.
Crider said in a phone interview that Gutierrez's billing practices and a lack of records hampered the investigation and left questions about where the federal money went.
The audit, which found other problems involving election funds, focused primarily on a contract for a voter education campaign that lasted from the fall of 2004 to December 2006.
The Secretary of State's Office had no records to support payments made to Gutierrez's company over that time period, the audit found.
The contract called for detailed statements of services, time and charges to be supplemented by receipts for expenses.
When interviewed by auditors, Gutierrez was able to produce records substantiating only $2.6 million related to the voter education campaign. That left questions about whether his company legitimately earned the other $3.7 million.
Crider said there is a disagreement as to how the contract should be interpreted.
Crider said Vigil-Giron "felt like it was a fixed price contract" but said his office "felt there should have been documentation to support his (Gutierrez's) actual cost."
Vigil-Giron said in a letter to Crider that "every invoice was verified by me and my accounting staff to assure that the work was scheduled and satisfactory prior to my recommendation to pay."
She told the Journal that Gutierrez did all of the work he was paid for "and the quality was outstanding."
Vigil-Giron, who is running in the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District, shot back with some charges of her own.
"This smells like it's coming from Karl Rove and the Republican Party," she said. "They obviously have done their numbers and they've got their map in their back room and they see me as the candidate that can defeat their little Republican whoever's going to survive this and so they're using the Inspector General ... to attack me a week before the election."
The audit was requested by Vigil-Giron's successor, Democrat Mary Herrera.
The audit report, released Wednesday, asked the New Mexico attorney general and the Secretary of State's Office to try to determine whether Gutierrez was overpaid.
Crider said the Secretary of State's Office would be responsible for making any repayment.
"We're not going to let this go away," he added.
Help America Vote
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 created a commission to help states administer federal elections. It provided funds to educate voters and train election workers. States were required to account for the money spent.
New Mexico received about $19 million.
Herrera said Wednesday she requested the audit after she won election to the seat in 2006 but had no idea what might be uncovered.
"I don't have a hidden agenda," she said, adding that at the time she couldn't have predicted Vigil-Giron would be running for public office this year.
Gutierrez's past clients included then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid's office and University of New Mexico Hospital.
His Web site says his was the "agency of record for many successful candidates including Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico."
His Web site list of political clients includes Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton/Gore campaigns in 1992 and 1996.
Only his company and one other vendor submitted proposals for the voter education campaign, the audit report said.
The request for proposals didn't go through the state's centralized procurement office, and competition may have thus been limited, the audit report stated.
Vigil-Giron allowed payments based on budgets submitted, not on actual expenditures, the audit found.
When auditors met with Gutierrez and asked to view his supporting documents, "we could not find supporting documentation for a lot of the costs," Crider told the Journal.
There were no payroll or other records specifying the time Gutierrez and his staff worked on the contract, the audit said.
That's why the audit recommended the AG's office "decide what kind of contract this is and what type of records he should have been maintaining," Crider said.
AG spokesman Phil Sisneros said the office would work with the secretary of state.
"Our next step will be to get with them and discuss this report and start a little bit of deconstructing, if you will, and find out where that leads us and to what end," Sisneros said.
Gutierrez produced and placed public service ads and produced training videos for poll workers. TV and radio spots aired 44,000 times prior to the 2004 general election and the 2006 primary and general elections.
They were prepared in English, Spanish and Navajo. Most of the ads featured Vigil-Giron, who stated her name twice during the 30-second and 60-second spots, sparking criticism that she was using public money to boost her political profile.
Vigil-Giron denied the charge, saying it was cheaper to do the ads herself. She also said she thought the message had credibility coming from the secretary of state and that it only made sense to identify herself.