A highly anticipated special audit released Tuesday found the Regional Coalition of Los Alamos National Laboratory Communities violated not only the taxpayer-supported group’s own travel policy but state law — an assessment that could loom large over the coalition’s former executive director as she campaigns for a seat in the state House of Representatives before the November general election.
The special audit revealed more than $51,500 in “improper expenditure payments” from July 2014 through June 2018, including $26,862 to Andrea Romero Consulting Inc., a Santa Fe-based consulting firm owned by Andrea Romero.
Romero, the coalition’s former executive director, won the Democratic primary for House District 46 against three-term incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo, whose campaign for re-election took a nosedive amid sexual harassment allegations lodged against him by a female lobbyist.
In a statement, Romero said she welcomed the findings of the audit, “which confirms what was already known — that there were errors made by me, RCLC Boardmembers, and Los Alamos County concerning the reimbursements in question.”
“I did not knowingly or deliberately violate any standard for reimbursement,” she wrote. “When my errors were brought to my attention, I made immediate repayment. Although I no longer work for the Coalition, I hope they use these findings to improve how the Coalition handles travel and reimbursement procedures. If the audit finds additional inadvertent errors, I will be happy to work with the Coalition and its Board to correct them.”
While the audit revealed serious internal control issues and violations of the Per Diem and Mileage Act, “there has been no evidence of a violation of a criminal statute,” said Enrique Knell, a spokesman for New Mexico State Auditor Wayne Johnson.
The review by Johnson said the coalition, a state agency formed under a joint powers agreement in 2011, has never undergone a state audit despite a 2013 notice that it was required to do so.
“Sunlight is always the best disinfectant, and yearly audits could have prevented the abuses found by this special audit,” Johnson said in a statement. “As the RCLC former treasurer said, public money should never be spent to conduct every single meeting over a taxpayer-funded meal.”
The coalition is composed of nine cities, counties and pueblos surrounding the national lab, including the city and county of Santa Fe. The coalition receives about $200,000 a year in public money, half from the U.S. Department of Energy and the rest from varying amounts paid by each member entity. In 2015, the Energy Department awarded the coalition a five-year grant in which it will receive $100,000 each fiscal year through 2020.
The coalition describes itself as a conduit for Northern New Mexico communities to have a say in government decision-making around regional economic development and nuclear cleanup at the lab.
The special audit confirmed improper reimbursements first reported in the spring by The New Mexican — including the purchase of expensive wines and liquor and Major League Baseball tickets.
But the State Auditor’s Office reviewed a longer period of time and uncovered a much longer list of improper reimbursements, including items such as a $10.81 mirror at Ross Dress for Less and a $20 ticket to Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center.
The audit also revealed a $1,850 meal at an upscale restaurant in Washington, D.C., that included $380 for alcohol — though it didn’t note a $28 glass of WhistlePig whiskey that became a symbol of the coalition’s spending.
The report found $2,639 in reimbursements approved by the coalition board “for alcoholic beverages, personal expenses and entertainment and recreation expenses” incurred by various well-known public officials in the region who served on the coalition board. That includes $37.48 in charges at a hotel restaurant in Virginia and then $41.11 in charges for room service at the same hotel, both on behalf of Santa Fe City Councilor Peter Ives. Former Mayor Javier Gonzales racked up $64.72 in charges at the same hotel restaurant, but unlike Ives, he didn’t order room service.
The audit uncovered nearly $5,800 in approved reimbursements “for meal and drink expenses for guests,” which were prohibited under the coalition’s travel policy, as well as the Per Diem and Mileage Act.
The audit also found that the coalition might be violating a Department of Energy grant agreement “with regard to explicitly prohibited lobbying” that “could result in the claw back of approximately $372,000.”
“The RCLC appears to be engaged in prohibited lobbying activities,” the 39-page report states.
The coalition disagreed with that item and other findings, stating in its response to the audit that “only a minority fraction” of its activities and expenditures related to advocacy activities.
“There is clearly more than enough non-grant member contribution revenue to cover those costs, ensuring that restricted grant revenues are not utilized for prohibited lobbying activities,” the coalition wrote in response to the finding.
The audit exposed a culture of incorrect billing that dated back years and involved not just Romero’s consulting company but JLH Media Inc., which provided executive director services to the coalition from November 2013 to November 2015. The audit found that JLH Media received nearly $4,800 in “improper expenditure payments.”
Romero, who used to work for JLH Media, took over as executive director in March 2016. JLH is a Santa Fe-based boutique public relations firm owned and operated by Jennifer Hobson-Hinsley, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent via email late Tuesday.
The audit found the coalition board approved reimbursements to both JLH Media and Romero’s firm “for meals for board members while the board member was in his or her home jurisdiction” in violation of the Per Diem and Mileage Act.
In other words, meals that were being reimbursed were consumed in board members’ hometowns, not while they were away. For example, Romero was reimbursed $38.91 for a meal at El Paragua restaurant in Española during a meeting with Alice Lucero, the former Española mayor. Romero was also reimbursed $286 for dinner at the Bull Ring restaurant in Santa Fe with Gonzales, the former mayor, and another guest. Neither Lucero nor Gonzales were entitled to receive per diem in their home jurisdictions, the report states.
The audit also found duplicate billing of mileage.
“During the course of the special audit, the [Office of the State Auditor] noted that reimbursements requested for mileage were duplicated by both executive directors and their staff,” the report states. “The individuals collected mileage for travel to and from the same location on the same day to attend the same meeting. The OSA identified twenty-eight (28) instances of duplicate mileage reimbursements totaling $1,115.”
Romero faces write-in candidate Heather Nordquist in November. Nordquist, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who is part of a watchdog group that first uncovered the coalition’s inappropriate reimbursements, recently wrote on Facebook that she has “never spent your taxpayer dollars on parties with my friends.”
“I’ve been referring to this as ‘ethical challenges,’ ” Nordquist said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I think that this simply moves it from that to unlawful behavior. I work and use public funds as part of my job, and I would not have a job if I did that with public funds.”
Johnson said the coalition’s board has agreed to yearly audits overseen by the State Auditor’s Office.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.