Funds for ostrich farm fuel criticism of regional coalition

March 4, 2018 GMT

The embattled executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities is under fire again.

This time, Andrea Romero, a Democrat seeking a seat in the state Legislature, faces criticism over $41,000 she received last year to help grow her commercial ostrich farm in the town of Ribera about 50 miles southeast of Santa Fe.

The money, in the form of a loan that must be repaid if Romero and her business partner fail to meet certain milestones, came from the Venture Acceleration Fund, a program established in 2006 by Los Alamos National Security LLC, the company that manages the lab under a multibillion-dollar contract with the U.S. Energy Department.

“It is, at a minimum, unseemly for the Executive Director of the Regional Coalition, which lobbies for increased LANL funding, to receive funding for her private business from LANS, who runs LANL,” Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in a news release. “Ultimately that funding for her private business comes from the American taxpayer.”


Romero, who is running against incumbent state Rep. Carl Trujillo in the Democratic primary election in June, said Friday that the latest charge is part of a bigger political vendetta that seeks to discredit her and the coalition itself.

“I think I’m being attacked on multiple angles for political reasons,” she said in a telephone interview. “This is obviously extremely hard to be caught in the middle of all these things for achieving things that we have wanted to achieve in the community: economic development, entrepreneurship, seeing people succeed.”

Romero said Nuclear Watch “very clearly disagrees with the lab’s activities across the board, no matter what they are.

“It’s been very clear since their inception that their ultimate mission is to take down the lab,” she said.

Coghlan laughed at the suggestion.

“Clearly, Ms. Romero is in a pretty vulnerable spot right now,” he said, “and I think she’s saying such things and making such categorical statements against Nuclear Watch New Mexico out of desperation.”

Coghlan said Nuclear Watch advocates for “genuine and complete cleanup” of radioactive waste, an effort that he said would not only benefit the environment but create hundreds of well-paying jobs.

“We are arguing for radical expansion of the cleanup programs at the laboratory, so in that sense, she’s completely wrong,” he said. “Not only that, she is complicit, as is the regional coalition, in condoning the incomplete and fake cleanup that the Los Alamos lab is promoting.”

The friction between Romero and Nuclear Watch is the latest entanglement for Romero, who has come under fire over revelations of taxpayer-funded spending by the coalition that included the purchase of alcohol during expensive restaurant meals and tickets for a professional baseball game in Washington, D.C.


In an op-ed submitted Friday to The New Mexican, Romero said she followed the coalition’s travel reimbursement procedure, which included seeking approval for an expenditure, paying for it with her own funds and then seeking reimbursement subject to approval by the coalition’s treasurer and Los Alamos County, which is the coalition’s fiscal agent.

“Simply put, as a private contractor, I did not know that alcohol included in a meal was not allowed,” the piece reads. “That has been the practice of the regional coalition since before I joined. I should have known better, and I apologize for my mistake. I also have offered to reimburse the coalition for those alcohol charges with meals for which I paid.”

The fallout has prompted a request by two Los Alamos County councilors for an ethics investigation.

Meanwhile, Romero’s proposed $140,000-a-year contract, which includes salary and operational costs, is on hold pending a legal review after Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller said the joint powers agreement that established the public agency does not give it express authority to enter into contracts. The board is scheduled to discuss the issue — and vote on Romero’s proposed contract — during a meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at the Española Public Library, 313 N. Paseo de Oñate.

The coalition is composed of nine cities, counties and pueblos surrounding the lab, including the city and county of Santa Fe and Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties. Each entity contributes different amounts of money to the coalition, which also receives about $100,000 in funding from the Department of Energy.

Outgoing Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, who currently chairs the coalition’s board, said the city’s investment has been worthwhile.

“For the value we put in — just $10,000 last year — we’re able to leverage more than $300,000 from the region, and there is no other organization we belong to that puts us in direct contact with decision-makers the way the Coalition has been able to do,” Gonzales said in an email.

“We’ve seen $3 million in community funds invested annually, successfully won the inclusion of a community benefit requirement in the current [request for proposals] for the management contract, met with every bidder to communicate on behalf of our communities, and established much better communication from the Environmental Management agency about the Legacy Cleanup waste,” the mayor added.

Romero said the coalition’s accomplishments are being lost in politics.

“Any line you want to drop between LANL and anyone in the Northern New Mexico community is an easy one,” she said. “I think to have to put these dots together for political purposes is just a shame because we’re actually knocking people down that are trying to really contribute to this community. I think that’s just a shame.”

Romero said she is doing important work on her farm, including integrating off-the-shelf technologies to optimize farming operations.

“I hope this is an opportunity to talk about farming of the future and how important it is that farmers know that technology can help promote optimal ranching experiences and improve the health of their own livestock,” she said. “That is what we sought out to do, and that is what we are, in fact, actually able to demonstrate. It’s really exciting.”

Romero and her partner were among six Northern New Mexico businesses that received funding last year from the Venture Acceleration Fund to boost growth. The fund is administered by the Regional Development Corporation.

“I think the assertion that the two are linked is completely unfounded,” Romero said, referring to the coalition and the LANS program. “This is a juried selection for a loan to help promote economic development in entrepreneurship.”

Val Alonzo, the development corporation’s executive director, declined to provide a copy of Romero’s winning proposal.

“This information is private and proprietary and will jeopardize our ability to work in the future with other companies or applicants in the VAF program,” he wrote in an email.

Alonzo, however, provided a 2017 news release that stated that Romero’s business, Tall Foods/Tall Goods, which she co-owns with a lab employee, is “a company bringing high-quality sustainable ostrich meat and other products (including leather, hypoallergenic feathers, and eggs) to the discerning and conscientious consumer.”

“VAF funding will go toward development and implementation of a livestock monitoring system that will communicate the real-time condition of the livestock via personal computers and smart devices,” the release stated.

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.