ESPAÑOLA — The newly configured board of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities decided Friday to deduct about $2,200 from money it owes to its former executive director because of reimbursements for alcohol and other expenses that she received in violation of the public agency’s own travel policy.
The board, which owes former Executive Director Andrea Romero two monthly payments of about $11,900 each, also decided to withhold half of the final payment for February.
At the board’s direction, Los Alamos County is reviewing other reimbursements Romero received during her tenure in case they, too, violate the coalition’s travel policy.
Los Alamos County, which serves as the coalition’s fiscal agent, conducted a review of reimbursements that Romero received during the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years amid mounting questions from coalition members and the public. But the board on Friday directed the county also to review reimbursements that Romero received at the beginning of her contract in 2016, or four months’ worth, that were not part of the initial review.
Board members said their payment plan was contingent on Romero’s agreement. Romero has stated publicly — and in an email Thursday to the board — that she wants to settle the matter.
“Although my contract with RCLC has expired, I have offered to reimburse the organization for any expenses that are found to be out of compliance because I believe so strongly in the mission of RCLC and the Directors who serve in a voluntary capacity,” Romero wrote in the email. “As you are aware, all expenses and reimbursement requests were approved by the Los Alamos fiscal agent and Regional Coalition of LANL Communities’ Treasurer, and not by me, as I had no authority to approve these expenses.”
The coalition is composed of nine cities, counties and pueblos surrounding the national lab, including the city and county of Santa Fe. The group 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 board’s decision to delve into previous reimbursements comes just days after State Auditor Wayne Johnson announced plans for a special audit of the coalition.
“There are enough concerns here to warrant a close look by an independent public accountant to make sure that all state laws were followed in the expenditure of public money,” Johnson said in a statement. “We have seen expenditures for items like baseball tickets and $28 for a single glass of Whistling Pig whiskey. We don’t know the full story, but an independent audit will reveal if there are violations of the law and a misuse of public money.”
Romero, a Democrat, is running in the June primary election for a seat in the state Legislature against Rep. Carl Trujillo of Santa Fe. She told the board Thursday that politics are at play — a contention she and her supporters have been making since the improper reimbursements came to light.
Romero told the board in the email that she hopes and trusts that Republican Johnson’s audit will be objective.
“As I have stated publicly, I believe the allegations against RCLC are politically motivated,” she wrote. “I urge the Board to act with caution; Auditor Johnson’s attorney for an ethics complaint in Mr. Johnson’s campaign for mayor of Albuquerque was A. Blair Dunn, the same attorney who is representing Northern New Mexico Protects in its allegations against RCLC, and the same attorney who worked with Representative Carl Trujillo to file a lawsuit against the State of New Mexico, deemed by a federal judge to be a ‘politically motivated,’ ‘frivolous’ lawsuit.”
Northern New Mexico Protects is a reference to Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land Water and Rights, a nonprofit whose members are aligned with Trujillo. Dave Neal, the nonprofit’s vice president, said Romero has her facts wrong.
“Never did we hire legal counsel for anything involving the coalition,” Neal said. “We’ve never hired Blair. We’ve never hired any attorney to do anything. It’s all been based simply on IPRA,” he added, referring to the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.
Dunn issued a statement Friday asserting that he has never represented Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land Water and Rights with regard to the coalition and has never represented Johnson in any matter. “Any claim that I have anything to do with RCLC matter or that it is some sort of partisan scheme is absolutely pure poppycock,” Dunn said.
Trujillo told The New Mexican in a statement Friday that Romero is making a desperate attempt to try to recover from the expenditures through political spin.
“I’m concerned that Ms. Romero may injure her neck twisting her situation to avoid taking responsibility for her actions,” Trujillo wrote.
In addition to a special audit and a deeper delve by the county of previous reimbursements, the circumstances regarding the financial irregularities also sparked an ethics investigation of Los Alamos County officials.
“The County Council wanted to look at all county officer and employee actions with respect to the regional coalition,” Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess said Friday, referring to the special audit and the ethics investigation. “We’ve hired an attorney to look at that.”
Burgess said there is potential overlap with Johnson’s special audit.
“Our chief financial officer has met with the state auditor to start talking about how documents can be obtained and try to ensure no duplication of effort in either of those two investigations,” he said.
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.