PRC commissioner denies improper travel reimbursement

Valerie Espinoza

New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner Valerie Espinoza on Friday disputed allegations of wrongdoing by Progress Now New Mexico, an Albuquerque-based liberal activist group that accused her earlier this week of improperly billing the state for a trip to Los Angeles.

Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, provided copies of two personal checks — totaling $1,609.05 — indicating she reimbursed the state for money it had given her ahead of the event last year, which was hosted by a trade association that paid her way.

The state had given Espinoza a travel advance and had paid airfare for her September trip to California for the four-day Mobile World Congress, hosted by CTIA, a trade association formerly known as the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. The association gave Espinoza $1,627.48 for the trip, which covered airfare, hotel, taxis and other expenses.

Espinoza issued a news release Friday saying, “It should be abundantly clear from the timing of these unfounded allegations that Progress Now NM’s real motivation is to retaliate against Commissioner Espinoza based on her recent votes in the current controversy related to the proposed closure of the San Juan Generating Station and the challenges to the applicability of the Energy Transition Act. … Commissioner Espinoza is merely voicing her opinions and concerns for the citizens and ratepayers of New Mexico.”

She was referring to Public Service Company of New Mexico’s plan to shut down a coal-fired power plant near Farmington and procedural delays by the commission in approving the closure under a new renewable energy law that includes funding for affected communities.

Progress Now New Mexico has requested public records on Espinoza’s travel, including all records of reimbursements from the state.

Jim Williamson, director of the Public Regulation Commission’s Administrative Services Division, apologized to the organization’s executive director, Stephanie Maez, in a letter Friday for not including copies of Espinoza’s checks, saying it was an oversight.

“Staff has issued a formal apology to Commissioner Espinoza for our error,” Williamson wrote.

But Maez on Friday said she isn’t satisfied with the response.

She pointed out that the check numbers on the copies of Espinoza’s checks had been blacked out.

“And we can’t tell when they were deposited, because they didn’t give us a copy of the backs of the checks,” Maez said.

She said she’s going to file another public information request for the backs of the checks.

Espinoza’s first reimbursement check to the state was dated Oct. 23, 2018, and was for $1,276.45, the amount of the advance the state had given her.

The next was dated Feb. 28, 2019, and was for $332.60, which is how much the state paid for Espinoza’s airfare.

The state also gave Espinoza a check for $24.65 for an “adjusted reimbursement” in December.

Progress Now also accused Espinoza of “excessive travel expenditures” and said some of the out-of-state events and conferences were not related to her work on the commission.

Espinoza, in her news release, said she’s “spent less than the allocated yearly budget given to each commissioner for the purpose of meeting her statutory educational and ethics requirements.” All travel for commissioners has to be approved by the commission’s chief of staff, she added.

Earlier in the week, Progress Now asked the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate Espinoza for possible wrongdoing. A spokesman for the agency said the complaint was under review.