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Coalition chairman says he’ll push for repayment of improper reimbursements

August 10, 2018

The chairman of the Regional Coalition of Los Alamos National Laboratory Communities said Wednesday he will advocate for the refund of more than $51,500 in improper reimbursements identified in a special audit, including nearly $26,900 that was paid to the agency’s former executive director.

“In the contract that was signed, it said that we were to abide by the rules and regulations of the coalition, and I think that’s been found to have been violated,” said Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal, who was elected chairman of the coalition earlier this year. “I don’t see how you should feel sympathetic when it was a clear violation.”

A special audit conducted by the State Auditor’s Office found a long list of “improper expenditure payments” to board members, outside parties and the coalition’s two former executive directors between July 2014 and June 2018.

The biggest share — $26,862 — went to Andrea Romero Consulting Inc. The Santa Fe-based consulting firm is owned and operated by Andrea Romero, who won the Democratic nomination in June for House District 46, beating three-term incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo in a highly competitive and controversial primary race. Romero faces write-in candidate Heather Nordquist in the November general election.

Roybal said he will push the coalition board to try to recover all the improper reimbursements — not just the ones attributed to Romero.

“If any of the parties put in for something that was in violation of the policy, then I feel that they should probably refund that to the coalition,” he said, adding he would bring up the matter at the next meeting.

Among the other “improper expenditure payments” identified in the audit is nearly $4,800 to JLH Media Inc., whose owner, Jennifer Hobson-Hinsley, previously provided executive director services to the coalition.

“As a business owner it is my responsibility to thoroughly review contracts and understand the nuances of protocol involved in delivering services and gathering reimbursements,” Hobson-Hinsley said in an email. “While JLH and its contractors did not intend to violate the Per Diem and Mileage Act by purchasing and seeking reimbursement for meals for board members in their home jurisdictions, I nonetheless uphold the highest standard for myself in doing right by taxpayers. I will work with the coalition to correct these errors.”

Romero didn’t say whether she plans to refund the coalition. She paid back improper reimbursements to her company that were identified before the audit earlier this year, but they represent a fraction of the amount listed in the special audit.

“I am not clear what happens next,” she said via text message. “I was not and have not been contacted by the [State Auditor’s Office] regarding this audit. As I stated before, I did not knowingly or deliberately violate any standard for reimbursement. When my errors were brought to my attention, I made immediate payment. If the audit finds additional inadvertent errors, I will work with the Coalition and Board to correct them.”

After State Auditor Wayne Johnson’s report was released Tuesday, his spokesman, Enrique Knell, said “there has been no evidence of a violation of a criminal statute.”

A day later, Knell said in an email: ’The Attorney General’s office certainly has the authority to initiate an investigation of their own.”

Knell also said staff in the State Auditor’s Office are reviewing the audit report “to determine if a formal referral to law enforcement is appropriate, and if there are potential violations of criminal statutes.”

A spokesman for New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas declined to say whether Balderas is investigating the matter.

“Where the State Auditor discovers potential violations of any criminal statute, the law requires that he should always report those to the appropriate law enforcement agency,” David Carl, a spokesman for Balderas, said in an email. “The Office of the Attorney General has not received a formal referral in this matter, but we remain deeply concerned about any misuse of public funds by officials.”

Asked why Balderas, a Democrat, needed a referral and didn’t act independently, Carl responded: “It’s the policy of the Office of the Attorney General to neither confirm nor deny the existence of non-public referrals for investigation in order to protect the integrity of those investigations and those accused but not charged with an offense.”

While a public referral is initiated by a member of the public or a law enforcement agency, a non-public referral is initiated internally.

The audit, which found improper reimbursements for alcohol, Major League Baseball tickets and other expenditures, as well as duplicate bills of mileage, stated the coalition violated not only its travel policy but the Per Diem and Mileage Act.

In an earlier email Wednesday, The New Mexican asked Romero whether she was familiar with the coalition’s travel policy, which expressly prohibited such items as alcohol as a reimbursable expense.

“When I began working for RCLC, the procedures for reimbursements were firmly in place and had been used by my predecessor for years,” Romero wrote.

“In fact, as part of my training and orientation as the new Executive Director, I was specifically instructed on how to submit receipts by Los Alamos County to pay for board functions and then seek reimbursement, subject to approval of the RCLC Treasurer and Los Alamos County,” which acted as the coalition’s fiscal agent, she wrote.

“Should I have gone back and reviewed the organizational documents? Absolutely. I had no reason to doubt the training provided by Los Alamos County, but it was my responsibility to double-check the policies and procedures, and I take full responsibility for that.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.