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Dem leader still backs candidate who misspent public money

August 10, 2018

From now on, it will be hard to take state Democratic Party Chairwoman Marg Elliston seriously.

She had the chance this week to stand up for ordinary people, the ones her party counts as its base.

She chose instead to stand with Andrea Romero, the Democratic nominee in House District 46 and a free spender of other people’s money.

Romero was executive director of the Regional Coalition of Los Alamos National Laboratory Communities. That mouthful of a title ought to be shortened to The Grifters.

A special state audit released this week showed Romero and members of this coalition cared primarily about having a good time at public expense. And Romero topped everyone in wasting money.

The audit found the coalition misspent $51,519 in taxpayers’ money. Romero is responsible for more than half of the improper spending — a total of $26,862, auditors found.

For months, Romero had made a show of saying a mere $580 was misspent by the coalition, and that she had repaid it. The audit tells a truer story. It reveals the depths of abuse by Romero and members of the coalition.

She and her cohorts spent public money on extravagances such as liquor, meals at upscale restaurants and Major League Baseball tickets.

A potentially bigger problem for Romero is a hint in the audit that coalition members might have double-billed for mileage reimbursements.

“… Reimbursements requested for mileage were duplicated by the contracted executive director and its staff,” the audit states. “The individuals collected mileage for travel to and from the same location on the same day. The [Office of the State Auditor] identified 28 instances of duplicate mileage reimbursement totaling $1,115.76.”

If anyone improperly collected mileage payments in a systemic way, that would seem to constitute fraud.

Another issue is why coalition members who spent public money to buy booze are not under criminal investigation. These are learned people working for government agencies. Yet Romero and the rest want to explain away the alcohol purchases as misunderstandings or honest mistakes.

Now back to Elliston, the Democratic Party chairwoman. I wonder why she didn’t bother to read the audit findings.

How do I know she didn’t read the report? I base this on the fairy tale of a statement she sent me when I asked her if the Democratic Party would stick with Romero as its candidate in District 46, now that the level of the coalition’s malfeasance is clearer.

“Ms. Romero,” Elliston wrote, “took responsibility for the reimbursement issue and paid back the Regional Coalition in full, which was confirmed by the State Auditor’s report. She has also pledged to assist in any further findings. Ms. Romero states that she was following practices that were in place prior to her becoming Executive Director and she’s since worked with the Board to rectify.”

Nonsense. Nowhere did the audit state that full reimbursement had been made for improper expenditures. Romero had claimed, to me and others, that she squared any issues by repaying a few hundred dollars. The audit establishes that coalition misspending exceeded $51,000.

Romero, while campaigning for public office, says she’s a leader. But when reacting to the audit findings, she tried to minimize that she was executive director of the coalition.

She said the audit confirmed “there were errors made by me, RCLC Board members, and Los Alamos County concerning the reimbursements in question.”

Elliston also dismissed the seriousness of the coalition’s lavish ways.

“The Auditor found no willful violations of law by anyone associated with the Regional Coalition, so calls for resignation are misplaced,” Elliston wrote. “Further, these issues were within the public domain during the primary election in June 2018, which Ms. Romero won decisively.”

More nonsense. Most of the audit findings were unknown when Romero defeated three-term incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo in the primary election on June 5.

At that time, Trujillo was being investigated by a subcommittee of the House of Representatives because a lobbyist brought a sexual harassment complaint against him. The subcommittee found evidence supporting part of the case against Trujillo. He said Thursday he maintains his innocence and wants an open hearing before an eight-member panel of House members.

Elliston is forgiving of Romero’s misspending and incompetence for one reason only: Romero is a Democrat.

The issue for Elliston and everyone in Santa Fe County’s District 46 ought to be whether Romero deserves a seat in the Legislature. Money management is a primary responsibility for lawmakers.

Write-in candidate Heather Nordquist also is running in the district. Smart and plainspoken, Nordquist was Romero’s main concern until the special audit was released.

Now, if a prosecutor digs into the coalition’s records, he could find a criminal case in all the misspending that Romero and Elliston are trying to downplay.

But that’s a big if. In this region, political alliances usually trump doing what’s right.

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

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