Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tasted the wrath of New Mexico taxpayers over high-dollar purchases of food and liquor made through her government-funded expense account.
But an examination by the State Auditor’s Office found “there is no indication any of the expenses” violated the law.
“Statutory authority remains ambiguous without definitions [within the law] concerning what constitutes ‘expenses directly connected with obligations of the elected office of governor,’ which could be broadly interpreted, or what could be considered ‘perquisites or allowances for state employees,’ ” a report released Wednesday states.
“As a result, the New Mexico state Legislature may wish to review the matter and consider whether further statutory clarification is necessary with respect to the fund.”
The governor’s $96,000 contingency fund has been an ongoing source of criticism and political attacks against Lujan Grisham as she seeks reelection amid revelations earlier this year her office spent taxpayer money on such items as Wagyu beef, tuna steaks, bottles of booze and dry cleaning.
A “risk review” by the State Auditor’s Office was initiated by complaints about the governor’s spending.
“We take every complaint that comes into the Office of the State Auditor seriously, just as we did this one,” state Auditor Brian Colón said in an interview late Wednesday. “It’s quite obvious that the statutory language is vague, and I would encourage the legislative body to contemplate reviewing this statute and coming up with an updated statute if they’re uncomfortable with the current approach on this contingency fund.”
The review found the statute governing the fund may not provide “adequate guardrails.”
While the examination was “unable to draw legal conclusions,” it urged the Governor’s Office to be more mindful of spending.
“The OSA [Office of the State Auditor] strongly recommends that any use of taxpayer funds always be carefully contemplated in light of applicable authority and documented to ensure appropriate use for the benefit of the state and taxpayers,” the report states.
The review of expenditures between July 2020 and Feb. 24 found the Governor’s Office spent just over $17,500 during that period. Unspent money reverts back to the general fund.
Of all the expenditures, the biggest, 29 percent, or about $5,221, was spent on food, followed by grounds supplies and equipment at the governor’s mansion at 22 percent and then decorations and flowers at 19 percent.
The total spent on “high-dollar” grocery items, including the Wagyu beef, was 3.01 percent of all food expenses, according to the report.
Just 3.39 percent was spent on alcohol, but the booze and the grocery purchases have stirred the most controversy for Lujan Grisham, like Colón a Democrat.
“New Mexicans struggled just to feed their families while Governor Lujan Grisham lived like a queen on their dime,” Will Reinert, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, wrote in an email. “Voters do not need a report crafted by a cast of lawyers to feel that using taxpayer money for luxury food and alcohol was a slap in the face and a morally rotten thing to do.”
The governor’s spokesman has said Cabinet secretaries, her state police security detail and other select state employees were provided meals during staff meetings at the governor’s mansion.
“Further,” the review states, “the Governor’s Office stated that alcohol purchases were made in anticipation of social events to be held upon the conclusion of current public health emergency. It was also disclosed that the alcohol purchased remains unopened on the Governor’s Mansion grounds as of May 2021 and will be used as appropriate pursuant” to the law.
The Governor’s Office has dramatically reduced its contingency fund spending since the expenditures came to light.
“We don’t need an unnecessary headache and to give Republicans any more [expletive] to talk about that they can exaggerate and run ads about and get people on Facebook screaming and making death threats and everything,” Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s chief spokesman, said earlier this month.
The fund has created headaches for a Republican governor, too.
Former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez tapped into the fund to pay for what turned out to be a raucous holiday party at Eldorado Hotel & Spa. The party drew calls to police following reports of bottles being thrown from a balcony that involved police — an incident some say may have ended Martinez’s hopes for national office.
Expenditure of the fund by previous governors created controversy and calls for legislative changes, which occurred in 2018, the risk review states. The changes included provisions subjecting the fund to the Audit Act, the procurement code and the Inspection of Public Records Act. They also required the Governor’s Office to submit monthly reports to the Department of Finance and Administration and the Legislative Finance Committee detailing all expenditures, the report states.