Guzzlers of whiskey and wine fear special audit

August 7, 2018 GMT

Several of the region’s politicians and hangers-on have reason to be nervous in what typically is the lull of summer.

The special state audit of a controversial public agency — one that misspent your money on whiskey, fine wine and tickets to a Major League Baseball game — might be released as soon as this week.

Auditors should provide a deeper understanding of how the Regional Coalition of Los Alamos National Laboratory Communities handled public money in the last few years.

More important, the audit should reveal whether the coalition is a responsible enterprise or the playpen for a favored few.

What’s clear even before the audit findings are released is that coalition members had no conscience. Nobody who cares about taxpayers would use public money to consume extravagant meals or sun themselves at a Washington Nationals game.

This area would be just as secure if not one penny went to the coalition.

It runs on a budget of $200,000 a year. Half the money is from federal taxpayers and the rest comes from taxpayers in the region.

Boosters of the coalition say it played a part in lobbying for public money that helped the lab and its neighbors in one way or another, such as environmental cleanup.

Their claim is nonsense. New Mexico has a congressional delegation that is duty-bound to seek funding for the lab.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-Santa Fe, a member of Congress for 19 years, has more insight and influence regarding lab projects than the coalition ever could. Udall and the rest of the congressional delegation also have staffs whose jobs depend on staying on top of the lab’s failings, hazards and economic opportunities.

What exactly is this LANL coalition? Its leaders are politicians from Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, plus the cities and pueblos around the lab.

Flabby government is apparent in the arrangement. County commissioners, city councilors and mayors from the region don’t have a bigger pulpit because they might sit on the coalition. They already have megaphones to the congressional delegation and to the public.

The coalition says it works “to create one voice to ensure national decisions incorporate local needs and concerns.”

Sorry. This coalition does not speak for me, not with its irresponsible record.

Whistleblowers last winter uncovered coalition receipts for recent months. The records showed that coalition members lived high on the hog. Or perhaps it was high on the pig and the bull.

One member of the coalition had the brass to order a $28 shot of WhistlePig whiskey while the coalition was in Washington, D.C., dining at a fancy restaurant called Casa Luca.

The guzzler of the WhistlePig whiskey has never been identified publicly. Andrea Romero, who was executive director of the coalition when the Washington spending spree occurred, told me she didn’t order the whiskey nor did she know who did.

A solid source recently provided me with the identity of the guzzler. The suspect, a sitting elected official, did not return my calls over the weekend. I’ve decided not to publish the name until I hear the rationale for billing booze to taxpayers.

Casa Luca was not the only upscale restaurant where coalition members wasted public money. They spent $286 on alcohol at The Bull Ring in Santa Fe one night last September. I’m sure the lab is better off because they discussed its shortcomings over Grey Goose martinis and Natura Rose wine.

Romero, now the Democratic nominee in District 46 in the state House of Representatives, no longer is director of the coalition. After being challenged on the expenses, she said she repaid the organization for any misspent money. But the state audit and another financial review of the coalition hang over her head.

Romero’s political supporters succeeded in knocking an independent candidate off the ballot in District 46. He submitted an insufficient number of petition signatures.

Standing in Romero’s way now is a write-in candidate, Heather Nordquist.

Nordquist was one of the whistleblowers who exposed the misspending of Romero and her cohorts.

Write-in candidates face an almost impossible task in winning over voters. Nordquist says the District 46 election will be an exception because of the coalition’s excesses.

She might be right. The state auditor’s special review of the coalition’s expenditures could make it difficult for Romero to maintain a low profile until Election Day.

But this problem is bigger than Romero.

If the state audit is damning, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities should die a noisy death.

Let its members and apologists whine over their wine. The public would celebrate putting these big spenders out of business.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.