Agency known for abuses should die with a whimper

May 1, 2019

One of the cardinal sins of a government watchdog is to make an explosive finding of malfeasance, then do nothing to recover any missing money.

And it’s practically a felony in the newspaper business to publicize this sort of trouble, then let the story fade away.

So I asked the new state auditor, Brian Colón, what had become of the inquiry into a public agency that lived high on the hog — or more precisely high on beer and WhistlePig whiskey.

I am talking about the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities. Its former executive director and many of its members had a taste for booze and fine restaurants at public expense.

Colón knows its history.

“We’ve reviewed all of the open files, and this is one I was concerned about because it wasn’t brought to a clear conclusion,” he said.

A special state audit of the coalition listed 18 findings of bad financial practices. The audit also stated that the coalition misspent more than $51,500 from July 1, 2014, through last June.

Auditors attributed more than half of that inappropriate spending — a total of $26,862.18 — to Andrea Romero, who was executive director of the coalition. The coalition did not renew Romero’s contract last year. Still, she remains in the headlines as a freshman Democratic state representative for Santa Fe.

The coalition was such an obscure agency that it sidestepped annual audits required under state law. The speaker of the state House of Representatives said he’d never even heard of the coalition until it made news for reckless spending of public money during a junket in Washington, D.C.

Colón, a Democrat, said the special audit conducted by his Republican predecessor identified problems in the coalition’s handling of money but lacked any follow through.

Now, he said, his aim is work with the U.S. Department of Energy and the state Attorney General’s Office to secure reimbursement of all misspent money “so the public is made whole again.”

The coalition has received about $197,000 a year in taxpayers’ money. Eric Vasquez, first-year executive director of the agency, says this money funds vital work. By his account, the coalition speaks with one voice for nine cities, counties and pueblos that have an abiding interest in Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The coalition is funded mostly by federal taxpayers but also receives money supplied by area residents.

Vasquez said in an interview Tuesday that the audit overstated how much money was misspent by the coalition.

For instance, he said, if $10 of $100 in charges were inappropriate, the audit “looped in” the entire amount. He obtained this understanding of the state audit from Los Alamos County, which serves as fiscal agent for the coalition.

Vasquez also said about $8,000 of the $51,500 has been repaid. But that occurred months ago, before or because of the special audit.

Romero repaid the coalition $2,246.90. She had been reimbursed in excess of what was permissible under its travel policy.

Another $5,000 for dues to an advocacy organization was improperly billed to Los Alamos County. The state audit found this occurred when the coalition’s money was “pooled” with county funds.

Vasquez said all improper practices flagged in the state audit have been corrected.

In addition, he said, the coalition has authorized individual audits for six fiscal years to make sure no other inappropriate spending occurred.

Vasquez was in Washington on Tuesday, meeting with federal honchos. By his account, the coalition aggregates information and then represents the region’s collective position on important matters pertaining to the lab, such as environmental cleanup or economic development possibilities.

But what this boils down to is a taxpayer-funded appendage imparting information to others on the public payroll.

Coalition members can travel to Washington, but they can’t rival the clout of Sen. Tom Udall. He has been in one chamber of Congress or the other for 20 years. The Udall name is magical in Washington. A call from the senator or even his office can open more doors than coalition members would pass while searching for the restroom.

In time, Vasquez said, he might be able to persuade me of the coalition’s importance. I am more likely to convince taxpayers the coalition is another useless level of bureaucracy.

Members of Congress have staffs and field offices. They have connections all over Washington. They know every mayor, town councilor and tribal leader in New Mexico.

Yet the coalition receives taxpayers’ money so its members can visit the capital. We’re supposed to believe its members are backstopping Udall and the others working there full-time.

After Colón finds a way to recover all money that was misspent by Romero and others, that should be the end.

The coalition caused a bang with its excesses. It should die with a whimper.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.