The state authority that oversees Spaceport America in Southern New Mexico voted 6-1 Friday to remove a CEO who had been placed on administrative leave after an investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing.
Spaceport Authority board members voted after about an hour of closed-door talks to remove Dan Hicks from the Spaceport Authority and retain Scott McLaughlin — who previously led the authority’s business development efforts — as interim director as they continue searching for a long-term replacement.
The sole vote against removing Hicks came from Laura Conniff, a real estate broker and an owner of Leveldale Farms and Conniff Cattle Co. in Las Cruces who did not disclose her reason.
Other board members also did not explain their vote or release any further details on the alleged wrongdoing that led to Hicks’ administrative leave.
“We will move forward with Scott as our acting director of Spaceport for the time being and then look into opening up the search for a new executive director of the spaceport,” board Chairwoman Alicia J. Keyes, the state’s Cabinet secretary of economic development, said during the meeting. “The investigative report has gone to the state auditor, so in terms of releasing, that is really up to the state auditor as to when he wants to do that.”
A wide range of allegations against Hicks were investigated. They included possible violations of the state procurement code; potential financial mismanagement, such as improper spending; alleged disbursement of gross receipts tax revenue for unauthorized purposes; and a possible conflict of interest, Keyes previously said.
Hicks had led the spaceport since 2016, and he was placed on administrative leave in June after former Chief Financial Officer Zach De Gregorio submitted a complaint accusing Hicks of pressuring him to ignore procedures meant to provide accountability for public spending.
State officials hired McHard Accounting Consulting, an Albuquerque-based forensic accounting firm, to look into De Gregorio’s complaint. When the firm told officials the alleged violations could be criminal, the state contacted State Auditor Brian Colón, who launched a separate probe.
Spaceport America, based near Truth or Consequences, has long been a point of political conflict and of economic hope.
Entrepreneur Richard Branson and former Gov. Bill Richardson announced their plans a decade and a half ago to build the world’s first commercial spacecraft launch and landing port, and New Mexico has invested some $220 million into its construction.
Virgin Galactic has conducted test flights at the spaceport, and the complex has made overtures to other clients as well. That includes Boeing and EXOS Aerospace.
But Virgin’s plans to send tourists into space still has not launched after continued delays, despite significant public investment.