New Mexico Attorney General’s Office reviewing complaint against PRC’s Espinoza

Valerie Espinoza

An Albuquerque-based liberal activist group is calling for the Attorney General’s Office and other state agencies to investigate Public Regulation Commissioner Valerie Espinoza on several alleged instances of wrongdoing, including improperly billing the state for a trip to Los Angeles last year for an event hosted by a trade association that had paid her way.

Stephanie Maez, executive director of Progress Now New Mexico, said Thursday the group recently obtained a cache of documents concerning Espinoza, many of them dealing with travel expenses, that were “deeply disappointing.”

“It is our hope that by shedding light on this we can ensure that the commissioner’s behavior is thoroughly investigated and future questionable activities by the commissioner cease all together,” Maez said in a news release.

Espinoza did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations Thursday, although an employee had indicated early in the day that she was planning to issue a written statement.

The main allegation brought forward by the group concerns a four-day Mobile World Congress held in September in Los Angeles and hosted by CTIA, formerly known as the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. The PRC is responsible for regulating the telecommunications industry in the state.

After the event, CTIA sent Espinoza a check for $1,627.48, which included airfare, hotel, taxis and other expenses. Espinoza signed an expense sheet that states: “I certify that to the best of my knowledge, CTIA’s reimbursement of the listed expenses is permissible under applicable state ethics and/or gift regulations.”

However, documents show the state Department of Finance and Administration gave her $1,276.46 as an advance for the trip and that the state in late August purchased a round-trip plane ticket for her, costing $332.60. In December, the state paid Espinoza another $24.65 for an adjusted reimbursement.

“There is no record that Espinoza reimbursed the state after receiving this money from the provider, even though Progress Now requested all records of reimbursement by Espinoza,” said a news release from Progress Now New Mexico.

The group also criticized the commissioner for what it called excessive travel expenditures.

One trip the group noted was a 2015 conference in Las Vegas, Nev., for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials — an event Progress Now New Mexico said “had nothing to do with her role as a PRC commissioner.”

The agenda for the conference included presentations on youth homelessness, human trafficking and education, among other topics. But some of the programs on the schedule, such as a tour of Hoover Dam (subtitled “Water, Energy and Infrastructure”) as well as discussions of general topics like “Governance and Leadership” and “Ethical Decision-Making for Policymakers” could be considered relevant for regulation commissioners.

Progress Now New Mexico noted social events on the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference, including a Cirque du Soleil performance and an event called Las Vegas Night Life Experience.

Progress Now also said Espinoza’s “personal animosity” toward Commissioner Cynthia Hall, D-Albuquerque, should be investigated.

A spokesman for Attorney General Hector Balderas confirmed Thursday his office had received a referral about the matter and that the complaint was under review.

Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, who was first elected to her commission seat in 2012 after serving for years as Santa Fe County clerk, has angered supporters of the new state Energy Transition Act. Closing the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington should be reviewed under that law, which passed in the 2019 legislative session and was signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, advocates say.

Espinoza has argued in public that the commission should apply an old law in the case because, she says, it would allow the commission more time to look at the issue.

Some supporters of the Energy Transition Act have said Espinoza and other commissioners are trying to get around the new law.

The new statute requires the state to reach 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045 and increases the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040.

The sponsor of the Energy Transition Act, which went into effect in July, has called for impeachment proceedings against those who have not agreed to hear the case under the current law.