Controversy surrounding legislative candidate Andrea Romero over improper reimbursements while serving as executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities is creating strife within the local Democratic Party.
At least two ward chairs are calling for Romero to drop out of the race for Santa Fe County’s House District 46, going against party rules by speaking out against the Democratic nominee.
Romero, who weathered nagging questions about the unlawful reimbursements leading up to the June primary election, in which she defeated three-term incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo, has faced fresh criticism over the issue since a special audit identified nearly $27,000 in “improper expenditure payments” to Romero’s consulting company and an independent investigation found that Romero was aware of a travel policy that was routinely violated.
“I find it all pretty indefensible,” Ward 1C Chairwoman Diana Orozco-Garrett, who supported Trujillo in the primary, said Thursday. “At worst, it’s theft and fraud, and at best, it’s extreme negligence and extreme incompetence.”
Another ward chairwoman, Consuelo Luz Arostegui, also is calling for Romero to withdraw. But Arostegui said she feels like she’s caught in a dilemma because ward chairs are “bound to support Democratic candidates that are before us after the primary.”
“My integrity is very important to me,” she said. “So how do I keep my integrity when I’m supposed to be out there encouraging people to go out and vote? As a matter of fact, we’re being encouraged [to tell New Mexico Democrats] to vote a straight Democratic Party ticket. What am I going to say if somebody says, ‘What about that Andrea Romero who’s done all this stuff?’ What am I supposed to say? So it puts me and my fellow ward chairs who are concerned about this in a real tough situation.”
Romero declined a request for an interview. But her campaign manager, Neri Holguin, said she was mystified by the calls for Romero to quit the race.
“Because Andrea acknowledged improper Coalition and Board expenses during the Primary, paid them back and won election, I’m puzzled why these women are working to divide our Party and our community,” Holguin said in a statement.
Todd McElroy, who chairs the Democratic Party of Santa Fe County, said his duty is to support the candidate who won the primary.
“In any race, not just House District 46, we can’t have officers of the party second-guessing the will of the people,” he said.
McElroy acknowledged that he has heard from others who want Romero to step down.
“And I’ve heard as many ward chairs and leaders say that we should support the outcome of the primary election when the voters of that district made a choice,” he said.
Debbi Kapp Brody, chairwoman of Ward 5D, declined to discuss her position about whether Romero should stay in the race, saying any member of the Democratic Party’s executive committee is “obligated by the rules of the party to support whomever is on the ticket.”
She said her plan is to continue to work to “create a blue tsunami” in New Mexico in November, though she said the cloud of controversy hanging over Romero could prove problematic.
“It will definitely create challenges in terms of trust, and it will be uncomfortable for me to talk to people as I canvass as it is for me to talk to you without saying everything,” she said. “I believe that some people are choosing to lose their positions [as ward chairs] so that they can speak out, and that’s just a personal choice.”
McElroy said he did not intend to pursue any action against Orozco-Garrett or Arostegui.
“I think that Ms. Romero has taken responsibility based on her guidance from the fiscal agent of the RCLC, which is Los Alamos County staff,” he said.
The coalition is composed of nine cities, towns and tribal governments that surround Los Alamos National Laboratory. Its mission is to advocate for regional economic development and nuclear cleanup, among other things.
The public agency has been under fire over revelations earlier this year concerning thousands of dollars in improper reimbursements that included alcohol, Major League Baseball tickets, at least one first-class plane ticket and other questionable expenses.
McElroy said he read the special audit conducted by State Auditor Wayne Johnson, a Republican, as well as the investigative report commissioned by Los Alamos County, which acted as the coalition’s fiscal agent, and “both came to the conclusion that there was no criminal intent.”
“It is unfortunate that mistakes have been made [at the coalition], and it is unfortunate that they have been conflated to the detriment of the Democratic Party ticket,” he said.
Romero, who served as the coalition’s executive director from 2015 to February, has said repeatedly that she did not “knowingly or deliberately” violate any standard for reimbursement. Romero has also said that she was only following the procedures that were explained to her when she began working for the coalition, which involved Los Alamos County reviewing the reimbursement requests and the various treasurers of the coalition board signing off on them.
But Orozco-Garrett and Arostegui said the violations of the coalition’s travel policy, as well as state law, are more than just simple mistakes that can be overlooked.
“I just read that Nancy Pelosi has come out that anticorruption is going to be one of campaign running slogans for the Democratic Party now in the next two months,” Arostegui said. “How can that be what we’re running for and not be willing to look at this situation and be more conscious of, ‘Wait a minute, this is not the kind of behavior we support … or at least let’s not just dismiss it as if it wasn’t important when it is important.’ ”
Romero faces write-in candidate Heather Nordquist, also a Democrat, in the November general election, in which there is no Republican candidate on the ballot for the state House seat. Nordquist was one of the whistleblowers who dug up information about the improper public expenditures prior to the primary election.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.