As soon as Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal looked at a series of proposed changes to the travel policy of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities earlier this year, he thought something was fishy.
The proposed changes were being made amid mounting questions about the coalition’s spending and reimbursements for lavish meals, alcohol and at least one first-class plane ticket, among other questionable charges.
The changes included eliminating a requirement for itemized receipts for meals and other miscellaneous incidental costs, as well a restriction on reimbursements for airfare upgrades and enhancements. Even more suspicious to Roybal, the proposed changes called for removing the September 2012 date the travel policy had been adopted.
Roybal said Friday the proposed changes almost felt like a cover-up.
“It just felt wrong,” said Roybal, who was the treasurer of the coalition’s board at the time. “It was definitely something that I said, ‘There’s no way I’ll vote for these changes.’ ”
Though they never went into effect, the proposed changes to the coalition’s travel policy led a law firm that conducted an independent investigation into alleged administrative misconduct to conclude they may have been part of an effort by Los Alamos County officials to conceal thousands of dollars of improper reimbursements.
Under a joint powers agreement that created the coalition, Los Alamos County acts as its fiscal agent. The coalition is composed of nine cities, towns and tribal governments that surround Los Alamos National Laboratory and advocate for regional economic development and nuclear cleanup.
“After the County was alerted to possible misconduct … the County attempted to correct deficiencies arising from the ill-defined practices regarding RCLC’s governance, policies, and activities,” the Albuquerque-based Adams + Crow Law Firm wrote in a scathing 38-page report. “From our investigation of documents and interviews, including analysis of witness credibility, we conclude the County’s ‘corrective’ efforts not only reflect poorly on County officials and employees but may constitute efforts to intentionally mislead others and/or conceal misconduct.”
The italicized words were included as emphasis by the report’s authors.
Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess said in a statement he concurs with the report’s findings that “inadequate, unclear or lacking policies and audits within the Coalition structure must be addressed and remedied.”
Burgess, though, said he doesn’t believe every finding in the report accurately represents the events that occurred.
“I personally disagree with implications by representatives of Adams and Crow that County employees or elected officials intentionally misled or attempted to conceal any wrongdoing,” he wrote. “While a lack of policies, understanding of the [joint powers agreement] structure, and inadequate oversight of Coalition spending might have occurred, our County staff are held to the highest level of integrity.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“I am very troubled by findings that suggest that staff may have ‘re-characterized’ certain expenditures and reimbursements to conceal errors or improprieties,” Los Alamos County Councilor Christine Chandler said in an email Friday. “If this proves to be true, there must be accountability. The county must thoroughly review the findings of the report to determine what corrective measures are necessary to ensure that these types of problems do not occur again.”
David Izraelevitz, chairman of the Los Alamos County Council, said the investigative report contains “serious allegations.”
“The Councilors just received the report yesterday and are reviewing it along with the underlying documents,” he said via email. “After a thorough evaluation, we will be in a position to give news media a comprehensive response.”
Chandler, a former member of the coalition’s board, said the board was “incorrectly informed” that the organization was not subject to annual auditing.
“It is obvious that independent audits were not only required but necessary. And had they occurred, we would likely not be facing these circumstances,” she said via email.
According to the investigative report, the State Auditor’s Office informed the county in 2013 that annual audits were required after the county sought guidance on the matter.
“Contrary to the State Auditor’s guidance … Deputy County Manager Steven Lynne specifically advised the RCLC Board during its August 11, 2017, Board Meeting that RCLC was not subject to the Audit Act,” the report states.
The investigative report, the findings of which were first reported by The New Mexican, follows the release of a special state audit that found more than $51,500 in “improper expenditure payments” from July 2014 through June 2018, including $26,862 to Andrea Romero Consulting Inc.
The Santa Fe-based consulting firm is owned by Andrea Romero, who formerly was the coalition’s executive director and who is now running for a seat on the state House of Representatives. She won the Democratic primary election in June. Romero faces scientist Heather Nordquist, a write-in candidate, in the November general election.
In a statement issued through a representative Friday evening, Romero said she had just received a copy of the county’s investigative report and was reviewing it. Romero also said she had never knowingly violated any spending policies.
Some of the state’s most high-profile Democrats, including House Speaker Brian Egolf and Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber, continue to stand behind Romero.
But the backlash over the improper reimbursements, which the special audit and the independent investigation both determined violated not only the coalition’s travel policy but state law, might be just beginning.
Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller said she expects commissioners to bring the matter up at next week’s commission meeting.
“I would venture to say in light of some of the findings of the [special] audit and this [investigative] report that my board might want to discuss whether they want to continue” contributing money to the coalition and being a member, she said.
“I think the county should do a review of what the benefits are, along with all the other partners in it, and determine whether having the coalition and the organization is beneficial to the community and then make a decision based upon the ultimate benefits and drawbacks to it,” she added.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.