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The lowdown on who bought that $28 shot of whiskey

August 10, 2018

Politicians always promise to be open and honest when questioned about public business. Then many of them turn silent as soon as they are asked about a touchy subject.

Los Alamos County Councilor Rick Reiss is the latest to duck for cover.

Solid sources say it was Reiss who ordered the $28 shot of WhistlePig whiskey and charged it to the public during a government junket in Washington, D.C. Reiss avoided the question when I posed it to him directly.

He was part of the controversial organization — the Regional Coalition of Los Alamos National Laboratory Communities — that violated its own rules and perhaps New Mexico laws with its free-spending ways, the state auditor stated in a special audit released Tuesday.

A receipt uncovered months ago by whistleblowers revealed the WhistlePig purchase, but not who placed the order. In addition to the WhistlePig shot, coalition members charged taxpayers another $352 for alcohol while eating dinner at the upscale Casa Luca restaurant in Washington.

These statesmen say they went to the nation’s capital to fight the good fight, to represent the interests of ordinary people who live in communities surrounding the laboratory.

Such important and taxing work must have necessitated that they have some fun, too.

Some members of the coalition attended a Washington Nationals baseball game at public expense. And several gathered for dinner at Casa Luca, where the booze flowed.

I had phoned and emailed Reiss a total of four times since Saturday about the dinner and purchases of alcohol. He finally responded Tuesday, by email.

Here are the highlights of our exchange:

“Good morning again, Councilor. I am seeking an interview with you regarding the coalition’s dinner at Casa Luca in Washington, D.C., and the purchase of alcohol with public money. Multiple sources say you ordered the WhistlePig whiskey shot that was charged to the public. What is your response or comment on this?”

Reiss replied: “I have no comment on the RCLC. They need to issue a statement about the State Auditors report findings as an organization and through their executive director, as approved by the chair of the RCLC. I believe that report will address any issues and required actions.”

I followed up: “Did you order the WhistlePig or not?”

Reiss did not respond.

Like so many in politics, he didn’t understand how the public reacts to waste and abuse of power.

New Mexico’s state budget is more than $6 billion, a number so large most of us can’t identify with it. But $28 for a shot of whiskey is a different matter. Everyone can understand that type of excess, especially when it’s billed to taxpayers.

Most people who go out to dinner are well aware that they have to live within their household budget. They can’t order WhistlePig or bottles of pricey Valdipiatta wine, then expect their landlord to give them a free month’s rent because they overspent.

Many in the private sector also occasionally order meals at the expense of their employer when they are out of town on business. They know what is fair and what is out of bounds.

No person I know in the private sector would be brazen enough — or stupid enough — to order a $28 shot of whiskey and charge it to his employer. Risking a job for a fancy meal with all the alcoholic trimmings is out of the question for most people.

Not so for the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities. It rolled on the taxpayer-supported gravy train with no shame and apparently no fear of being caught.

Reiss once said he would be frugal with public money. The occasion was when he ran for the Los Alamos County Council four years ago.

“I believe government should provide basic, essential services and infrastructure. If we only have $10 to spend, then I will see that we spend it on water, sewer, electricity and roads,” he told the Los Alamos Daily Post.

Who knew that WhistlePig whiskey was as essential as water?

Reiss also wrote a guest column for The New Mexican in May in which he defended the excursion to Washington and the work of the coalition.

“As a group, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities has a louder voice in actions taken at the state and national level,” he wrote.

I wonder how loud he and others were at Casa Luca. Did they have to yell to get a waiter’s attention when ordering yet another round of drinks?

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-490-1048.

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