State Auditor Brian Colón has launched an investigation into Spaceport America after the agency’s former chief financial officer accused its chief executive officer of pressuring him to ignore procedures that provide accountability for the spending of public money.
Colón said Monday he couldn’t release the complaint that prompted him to open the investigation, but said he began the inquiry in June, one day after former Chief Financial Officer Zach De Gregorio resigned, citing frustration with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board’s response to his whistleblower complaint about CEO Dan Hicks’ alleged attempts to get him and others to circumvent accounting protocols.
“Daniel Hicks has shown gross mismanagement and abuse of authority,” De Gregorio wrote in his complaint. “He has consistently applied pressure to the CFO and the accounting staff to bend the rules. This pressure has reached the point where I feel like my ethical ability to act as a check and balance for financial decisions in the Agency is compromised. This has created a toxic environment where there is no longer adequate internal controls at the NM Spaceport Authority, which could lead to fraud.”
De Gregorio also accused Hicks of attempting to block and interfere with his communications with state Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia Keyes and the Spaceport board.
“Daniel Hicks often talks about that it is his money and his authority and he should be able to do what he wants,” DeGregorio wrote in his complaint. “Zach De Gregorio reminds him that it is the State of New Mexico’s money and the board’s authority and the Agency has to follow the process.”
Hicks — who has headed the spaceport since 2016 and was placed on administrative leave the day De Gregorio submitted his complaint — could not be reached for comment Monday. De Gregorio, who resigned June 21, also could not be reached for comment.
The state of New Mexico has invested some $220 million into construction of Spaceport America.
The Economic Development Department has hired an outside accounting firm to begin a forensic audit of the Spaceport Authority.
According to a contract obtained through a public records request, the Economic Development Department has agreed to pay the McHard accounting firm at least $15,000 but up to $49,000 to review three years of the Spaceport Authority’s procurement procedures, legislation and written agreements governing gross receipts tax and the usage of funds generated by the tax. It also will look at correspondence between Hicks and DeGregorio and other accounting staff.
Spaceport America public relations coordinator Alice Carruth on Monday declined to comment on what she called “an ongoing personnel investigation.”
Another former Spaceport employee filed a whistleblower complaint against the agency July 20 in state District Court, claiming that as a space systems engineer with more than 35 years experience she was paid less than male counterparts and retaliated against when she raised the issue and others.
Karen Barker seeks an unspecified amount of damages for alleged Fair Pay for Women Act and New Mexico Human Rights Act violations in her complaint.
According to the complaint, Barker claims Hicks created a toxic work environment. Despite her experience, she was excluded from fully participating in management decisions and was “used to provide contacts for male members of the team and support them with enough knowledge so they could appear to understand the Spaceport business.”