Media Bias Foists All Responsibility on Romero, Audit and Independent Report Disclose Another Story

Page after page of the State Auditor’s audit and the Los Alamos County (LAC)-contracted independent report include findings highly critical of RCLC Board and LAC senior staff. The media is not reporting this. We are.

Background. Recently the state of New Mexico’s Office of the State Auditor (OSA) completed an audit of the Regional Coalition of Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) Communities’ (RCLC) expenditures amidst claims of misuse of public funds. Subsequently, Los Alamos County, (LAC) the fiscal agent for RCLC, contracted with Adams + Crow (A+C) to do an independent analysis of the County’s responsibility for the situation.

Not many people have the time to read a 40-page audit and a 40-page independent report, and so they must rely on the media to report on what is contained in such reports. So Roxanne and I both have read every word of the reports; I’ve read them twice. Our intent is not to exonerate Andrea Romero but rather to understand and then to synthesize what we found. Both of us feel the media has missed critical findings from these reports and in the process has shifted all of the blame for misuse of funds to Romero. What they have reported are baseball tickets, wine, and Whiskey Pig. We do not delve into that as it has been widely reported, and as this report makes clear, the responsibility for approving those expenses were that of the RCLC board and fiscal agent, LAC. We recognize that the post is long, but there have been many issues described without being well substantiated. We wanted to demonstrate we did our homework and that the judgments contained throughout were those of the OSA and A+C.  Read on.

Romero’s Performance as Executive Director. Before going through audit and report findings, it is worth recalling why many of us voted for Romero and what an exemplary job she did while at the RCLC. The board had renewed Romero’s contract once and had prepared another renewal in January 2018 when Romero declined to continue that contract. There was very good reason for the RCLC board’s satisfaction.

From an Albuquerque Journal letter to the editor (4-6-18) from Ron Lovato:

“As governor of Ohkay Ohwingeh, my community was an early member of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities because we saw the need for a shared community voice on matters pertaining to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. LANL is, after all, the economic engine that drives our economy in the Española Valley. Under Ms. Romero’s leadership, the Coalition has:

  • Lobbied successfully for millions of dollars in increased funds for cleanup of nuclear waste at LANL.
  • Passed legislation in the 2018 state legislature, preserving the $86 million in GRT from LANL’s prime contractors to the State of New Mexico and Northern New Mexico communities that Governor Martinez had vetoed.
  • Created pathways to successful dialogue and relationships between DOE and new LANL contractors to engage in the community’s concerns and opportunities for success.”

Lovato had much more to say about Romero in this opinion piece, so I have included the entire piece at the end of this post.

Months ago, I sought amplification on Romero’s role at the Coalition from former Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales. He explained how, before the Coalition formed, there was no means of developing a regional strategy for collaborating with the Department of Energy or LANL. There was no way to lobby regionally and share regional concerns with our Congressional delegation or to lobby in Washington, D.C. for increased funding for addressing legacy waste at LANL.

Gonzales said that once Romero came on board, she immediately began facilitating a strategic planning process to provide the Coalition with a structured plan and set of priorities to guide its work. Prior to her involvement there had been no such framework. He noted that she led the effort to preserve $69M in Los Alamos County and State GRT taxes. Gov. Martinez vetoed the bill. Romero also led the effort in Washington to secure $500K in increased funding for remediation of LANL’s legacy waste. Lastly, during the transition between operators of LANL, Romero’s efforts protected $3+ million in LANL Community Commitment Investments that serves education, economic development, and community charitable organizations; protects local contractors to maintain a 5% preference on contracts at LANL; and ensure regional communities are considered as the first customer to Lab activities.

According to Gonzales, perhaps the most important thing that was achieved while Romero directed Coalition efforts was the forging of collegial and highly collaborative relations among diverse regional stakeholders. While the focus of board meeting discussion was always on the mission of the Coalition — to expand resources aimed at remediation of legacy waste — the nine member board often discussed ways in which they could align their economic development, transportation, and other strategies to create more synergy among groups. Romero was adept at fostering collegial relations among diverse representatives, a legacy that will sustain their work going forward.

These are the kinds of skills and qualities we want from a legislator, but all of this has been lost in a politically motivated effort to foist all the blame for RCLC misuse of funds on Romero.  As to her purported misuse of funds, read on.

The Coalition’s Mismanagement and Misuse of Funds Existed from Its Inception.

As this post will describe, well before the hiring of Romero in 2016, the RCLC had established a fiscal process that both the OSA and the A+C report felt was guided by confusion, blurred roles and responsibility, and showed a willful disregard for state law and the OSA. We have seen none of this reported, and no outcries have been aimed at any of the elected leaders on the RCLC board or the senior staff from LAC who were responsible for fiscal oversight.

From the A+C report [Bold italics are mine]:

“The investigation revealed that, through its conduct over time, the County assumed a greater fiduciary duty to RCLC as a matter of practice. The ambiguous role of the County was found to have contributed to uncertainty or “confusion” by County officials and employees, as well as RCLC members and Andrea Romero Consulting (ARC), allowing impermissible expenditures and reimbursements to occur.  This “confusion,” however, was avoidable and could/should have been addressed much earlier in the five+ years of RCLC’s existence given the number of educated and sophisticated people working with the County, including elected County Councilors who served on the RCLC Board and sometimes as RCLC Treasurer. Indeed, at least one County Councilor serving as RCLC Treasurer [Henry Roybal], in accord with duties of County Councilors to serve on Boards and represent the County, specifically “approved” impermissible reimbursements in writing.”

RCLC failure to respond to a 2013 OSA memo directing them to conduct an audit.

The confusion described above could have been avoided had the RCLC board and LAC, as fiscal agent, heeded the 2013 OSA memo indicating that the RCLC was subject to an annual audit. As the A+C report specifies, that notification was sent to LAC Deputy Manager Steve Lynne. But no audit has been performed (until the OSA audit) and Lynne even reported to the Board in 2017 that none was required. It is the fiduciary responsibility of the Board and Fiscal Agent, not a contracted employee, to ensure that audits are conducted and that policies conform with state law. Had an audit been done in 2013, the misuse of funds and the RCLC Travel Policy that is in conflict with state law would have been identified years before Romero was retained. We have seen none of this reported.

Mileage Reimbursements Labeled “Duplicated” Were for Separate Staff Traveling to the Same Meetings.

Another detail that has been widely reported was the purported duplication of local mileage reimbursement. From the OHA audit:

“During the course of the special audit, the OSA noted that reimbursements requested for mileage were duplicated by the contracted Executive Director and its staff. The individuals collected mileage for travel to and from the same location on the same day. The OSA identified twenty-eight (28) instances of duplicate mileage reimbursements totaling $1,115.76.”

This finding has been widely repeated as Romero turning in two duplicate reimbursement requests for her own travel on the same day to the same meeting. This would indeed be a questionable practice, if that was what occurred.

What did occur is that during the time period for the audit 254 mileage reimbursements were requested and during that period 14 were flagged as duplicates. This is a tad confusing, as the report states 28 duplicate reimbursements, but this was for 14 events where the auditor identified 28 reimbursements sought.

But what the audit doesn’t report is that on each of those 14 occasions, Romero didn’t seek duplicate reimbursements for herself, but one reimbursement for herself and one for another staff person going to the same meeting. Hence, two people traveled to the same meeting in separate cars because either one person had to arrive early to prep the meeting venue or one had to go from that meeting to another meeting and hence two cars were used.

This is something that could easily have been verified had the State Auditor contacted Romero. But Romero was never contacted to clarify this or anything else in the audit.

For 35 years, I ran a consulting firm full of associates who often traveled in separate cars to the same meeting for various reasons. This is simply not duplication or misuse of funds. It is how business often gets done. But that is not what has been reported.  Because it has not been reported, many Democrats in email and social media have simply repeated the misinformation, using it to show intent on Romero’s part. With a fair rendering of what occurred, it is clear that no duplicate billing occurred and no attempt to do anything except be reimbursed for legitimate expenses.

LAC Was Responsible for the Effort to Mislead and Conceal Misconduct, Not Romero.

Another point reported in the media is that Romero sought to change the rules of how expenses should be characterized to allow some questionable expenses to be legitimatized and to hide misuse of funds. In October 2017, before anyone had raised concerns about misuse of funds, a new Travel Policy was drafted by Steve Lynne, Henry Roybal (RCLC Treasurer), and Andrea Romero, Romero being just one of several who worked on the draft. But while the media has reported Romero as having been the driving force behind this, the A+C report places responsibility where it belongs:

“From our investigation of documents and interviews, including analysis of witness credibility, we conclude the County’s “corrective” efforts not only reflect poorly on County officials and employees but may constitute efforts to intentionally mislead others and/or conceal misconduct.”

Note that the A + C report places the blame for this effort to change the Travel Policy and to hide misuse of funds solely upon LAC officials and employees, not on Romero, as reported in the press and by her write-in opponent. Indeed, I have reviewed a copy of a January 2018 draft of proposed changes to the Travel Policy that includes the track changes made by Steve Lynne, LAC Deputy Manager. The original draft would have tightened and clarified the existing policy. But throughout that draft are deletions made by Steve Lynne and in every instance the changes dilute the policy and substantiate the A+C report’s findings. For example Lynne’s deletions include:

  • Excluding contracted staff from being bound by the policy;
  • Eliminating a proposed $10,000 limit on travel for contracted staff and board members; and
  • Removing a requirement to provide receipts for meals.

Vast Majority of Misuse of Funds Was Responsibility of RCLC Board and LAC.

One of the most egregious aspects of the media’s misreporting has been attributing all of the RCLC misuse of funds to Romero. In truth, Romero transmitted the receipts for expenses that were mostly incurred by RCLC board members (most of whom are elected officials) and their guests, such as DOE staffers and other policymakers. Then those invoices were approved by more elected officials, elected officials whose legal responsibility was to review the appropriateness of the expenditures and authorize payment. While the reimbursements went to Romero, the costs incurred and the misuse of funds were primarily by RCLC board members and their guests.

The only instance I have found where anyone on the Board or the LAC staff questioned any reimbursements occurred when in a board meeting Treasurer Roybal wondered if the $283 for a Bull Ring dinner was appropriate. Once he was told that this meal included four people he approved the expenditure.

Anyone with knowledge of how the Roundhouse operates knows that most every night throughout a legislative session, legislators, staff, and lobbyists huddle at Bull Ring. I hate that lobbyists and legislators do this kind of thing, but it is done every night in Santa Fe and in every state in the nation. We need to get money out of politics, but until we do, this happens. And what RCLC has spent on meals and alcohol over the two years being audited, probably doesn’t come close to what is spent in one night at the Bull Ring.

The Importance of Integrity.

The above doesn’t entirely exonerate Andrea Romero, but she has repeatedly acknowledged that she made mistakes and used poor judgment. Her requests for reimbursements were always made publicly with no effort to hide any of the uses of funds. I know there are some Democrats who are concerned that by supporting someone who made mistakes in judgment and who is involved in the misuse of funds, they may undermine the larger purpose of building the Democratic Party. I can understand that line of thinking.

But who of us has not made mistakes in judgment? A person of character acknowledges those mistakes and makes every effort to address the mistakes publicly. Romero never once sought to hide her reimbursement requests; they are entirely public. And who among the many elected officials on the RCLC board has stepped forward and acknowledged that long before Romero was retained, they should have questioned their Travel Policy and exercised their responsibility for fiscal oversight (or lack thereof)? No one that we know of.

Had a clear policy been in place and had the LAC or the RCLC Treasurer Henry Roybal handled their fiduciary responsibilities appropriately, the very first reimbursement request containing alcohol would have been flagged — long before Romero had been retained. That never happened. I can well imagine an RCLC dinner early in Romero’s tenure. Dinner and wine is order, a check is delivered and handed to Romero with a comment of something like, “just turn in the receipt to be reimbursed.” So it is easy to see how Romero or anyone else in her position would assume that these kinds of expenditures were acceptable. In most all instances, one or more board member or County staff were among those consuming the meals, taking the travel, and drinking the alcoholic beverages.

Should Romero have scrutinized her entire contract, including the Travel Policy more carefully? Yes, but so should have every single board member and, most of all, the fiscal agent. They approved the budget, they approved the expenditures, and never was a word raised. Where are the calls for Lynne to resign for failure to recognize the need for an audit? Where are the calls for the Board to resign for being a part of all of these alcohol expenditures? Romero didn’t order the Whiskey Pig, she just took the receipt and gave it to LAC who approved it and repaid her.

If Democrats are truly concerned with addressing misuse of public funds, their effort should be on rooting out the actual cause of the problem, not scapegoating one individual and thinking you’ve done your work. But with the media reporting a vastly oversimplified view of what occurred, no one is holding anyone but Romero accountable. Consider this:

  • Henry Roybal was RCLC Treasurer during most of the time covered by the audit. The RCLC bylaws indicate Roybal was responsible for monitoring expenditures and reviewing receipts. How is he being held accountable for his role? He has been promoted to RCLC Board President.
  • Steve Lynne, LAC Deputy Manager, ignored the OSA’s 2013 memo informing him that the RCLC needed to do audits, told the Board in 2017 that it didn’t need to do audits, and attempted to water down a new travel policy in January 2018. His name hasn’t appeared in any news coverage as far as we know.
  • Former Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzalez served on the RCLC board and was the beneficiary of a first class flight in 2017, the only flight available, (which prompted the County to re-examine its Travel Policy), and nary a word about the Mayor; and
  • Andrea Romero, pilloried in the media with coverage that has failed to consider or write about any of the mitigating circumstances or the shared responsibility of other elected officials and LAC senior staff. And as a result of the bias and incomplete coverage she has been asked to withdraw from the race by two Democratic Party Ward Chairs, who by the way, were strong supporters of Carl Trujillo.

I could go on as the above is only a partial list. Over time, mayors and city/county councilors have sat on the RCLC board, many have participated in dinners or lunches where alcohol was consumed. They have sat on the RCLC board and either tacitly or explicitly approved these kinds of expenditures. Does that make them people unworthy of public office? I don’t think so. They made mistakes of oversight for the most part and in some cases mistakes in judgment. But haven’t all of us made mistakes in omission or in judgment? If the bar is so high that you must never make a mistake who among us would be worthy to serve in public office?

The A+C reports identifies many elected officials and senior LAC staff as having benefited directly from inappropriate use of funds. Indeed the OSA audit on page after page identifies the County and Board as having approved unallowable expenses and ignored state law and its own Travel Policy. But instead, I urge you to read the documents yourself. Click here to review the OSA audit and the A+C independent report.

I want to be honest. I think Romero should have realized that alcohol should not have been a reimbursable expense. But she entered an organization that had been routinely approving those kinds of expenses long before she arrived and many other elected officials were at the table when those expenses were incurred. Those same board members were in the Board room when the expenditures were approved. Only Romero has publicly accepted responsibility for any of this. And she has done so repeatedly. I am not going to try to tell you how to react to all this. For some, there is a zero tolerance for mistakes, for others, they will see Romero as someone who made a mistake and owned it. If the other elected officials had done their jobs, we wouldn’t even be talking about any of this.

Many Democrats with zero tolerance for Romero appear to be those with an abundant ability to forgive or overlook the mistakes made by Carl Trujillo. with social media flooded with claims that Laura Bonar was a liar and that the entire harassment charge was a political fraud. We can learn a lot about the character and integrity of this new write-in candidate by knowing she attacked the credibility of a woman who courageously spoke up about being sexually harassed, then verbally attacked Democratic Party leadership when they defended Bonar, and even now is questioning the integrity of the Subcommittee findings that there was sufficient evidence to conduct a full House investigation.

This leads me to a concern I have about organizations like Retake Our Democracy becoming immersed in partisan politics. In general elections, lines are drawn more cleanly. But in primary elections too often people who agree in 75% of the issues find themselves on opposite sides. Too often these primary battles involve personal attacks on one or both candidate and then supporters, who again agree on much, dig in, too often relying on attacks on people rather than policy (mea culpa during the Bernie v. Hillary primary). Those scars remain and the scars in Dist. 46 will remain, as well. But here there are so many things where Dist. 46 voters have more about which they agree than disagree. I hope after the general election, we can find a way to reconcile our differences and work together on issues related to water, easements, land use, and LANL’s being the economic driver of the valley while also being organized around nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry. There is common ground to be found.

In closing, it is easy to see how, based upon media coverage, some Democrats could be alarmed enough to forget the exemplary job Romero had done representing the region and ask her to step aside. I hope that this post helps to balance the reporting and allow Democrats who voted for and canvassed for Romero to remember why and do so now. It would be a shame if misleading media and social media coverage prevented a strong, progressive, Hispanic woman of character with a demonstrated capacity to get things done to take a seat in the House.

April 6, 2018 ABQ Journal Op-Ed by Ron Lovato, governor of Ohkay Ohwingeh:

It has pained me to see the news articles and the way some have disparaged the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities and Ms. Andrea Romero without acknowledging the accomplishments of the organization under Ms. Romero’s leadership.

As Governor of Ohkay Owingeh, my community was an early member of the RCLC because we saw the need for a shared community voice on matters pertaining to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. LANL is, after all, the economic engine that drives our economy in the Española Valley.

Under Ms. Romero’s leadership, the Coalition lobbied successfully for millions of dollars in increased funds for cleanup of nuclear waste at LANL; passed legislation in the 2018 state legislature, and preserved $86 million in GRT from LANL’s prime contractors; created pathways to successful dialogue and relationships between DOE and new LANL contractors to engage in the community’s concerns and opportunities for success.

The recent negative news about spending on behalf of the Coalition was clearly a political attack. I am concerned it was rooted in the divisiveness that has come to mark a growing and unsettling pattern in Northern New Mexico. For too long, this is how our politics have worked in the north. Too often, politicians act out of an interest to retain their position of power, and not out of an interest to bring people together. We should not attack bright young people when they express interest in political office. Romero is a bright, shining star and one who has the proven ability to bring diverse communities together.

I hope people get to know Andrea Romero and her talents and contributions. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed by many community leaders, myself included, who have dedicated their lives to bettering our communities. My hope is that the truth of her leadership shines through and we continue to support her future as she has supported us. And most importantly, I hope we can move beyond the divisions that hold us back and move forward together, solving problems that we all face.

It is up to each of us to choose who to trust and who will defend our values, our priorities, and women with the courage to speak up. That is an easy choice for us.

In solidarity,

Paul and Roxanne

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4 replies

  1. Thanks for the detail, Paul. I hope that the SFNM reporters read your blog and take another run at reporting this issue more completely and fairly.

  2. paul & roxanne: as there is no email link i can find, i attach the email text i just sent to milan simonich at the SFNM. keep up the good work.

    Dear Mr. Simonich:

    As you are the senior politics guy at the SFNM, I may be about to point you to a resource you already possess. If so, kindly forgive my presumption.

    Your article about the Romero audits the other week stated a distinctly black & white case against her in particular & the NM Democratic Party in general. While entertaining in its righteousness, it could possibly have been lacking in those subtle discriminations so characteristic of actual reality.

    Roxanne & Paul Gibson at Retake Our Democracy are doubtless familiar to you as two of the leaders of the insurgent Democrats during the 2016 Presidential Primary campaign & thereafter. But you may not have looked at their website on a regular basis.

    The citation below is of a detailed review of the audits of the RCLC expenditures & of the responsibilities of Romero & other state & county authorities.

    I hope you will consider the arguments & evidence as laid out by the Gibsons as you continue to follow the complex facts that have been reduced to the Romero story.

    Faithfully yours,

    James McCarty Yeager
    Santa Fe

  3. I am one of the Ward Chairs who asked for Andrea Romero’s withdrawal from the District 46 race and I need to correct your assertion that I was “a strong Carl Trujillo supporter”. I never endorsed, worked for or donated to his campaign. Back in April I was in the process of learning about both of the candidates when I had to leave the country because of the death of my mother. I knew that Trujillo had a very good reputation as a fighter for the North and I’d heard that he had very large community attendance at his meetings which I had never gone to. I met Trujillo personally a few times at Democratic events after I became Ward Chair and was impressed with him as a person.

    I met Andrea Romero when she came to one of my Ward meetings to speak to my Ward members about her candidacy. I was a bit mystified as to why another Hispanic Democrat would be challenging a seat held by such an extremely popular, hard-working Representative.

    I was impressed with her aggressive campaigning, she even came canvassing to my door, and I remained open to listening to her though still bewildered as to why she wanted to challenge Trujillo who had been doing an excellent job working for our District.

    And then Romero’s misuse of funds issue was made public but quickly belittled and dismissed as minor and unimportant. And then the sexual harassment accusations came out against Trujillo. And then I received the news that my mother passed away and I had to leave the country for a couple of months, missing the entire primary campaign and election process.

    Assumptions of my being a strong supporter of Carl Trujillo are trying to make a case that this is a politically motivated attack. I am speaking up and taking a stand because I accepted my elected position as Ward Chair within the Democratic Party with the intention to do what I could to reform the Party and work for transparency and accountability in order to attract back those who have left the Party in disgust because of the attitude of tolerance and excuses made for those who take lightly the abuse and corruption around the use of public funds and those who misuse their positions to manipulate elected officials for their private or political gains.

    I have read the entire Audit and Legal Report and continue to insist as does the Report that Andrea Romero was fully aware of the “Travel Policy” which governed reimbursements and as a highly paid and highly educated Executive Director bears her share of responsibility for the misuse of public funds, breaking state law on reimbursements and trying to cover up by retroactively amending the RCLC’s policy. I agree that there are others who also bear responsibility and should be held accountable as well, but that does not exonerate Romero. The focus on her is obviously because she is the only one running for public office right now in an election that is just around the corner.

    Consuelo Luz Arostegui
    Ward 1D Chair

    • Hi Consuelo,
      You were not identified in the blog but I can see your concern. Please take a look at the email I just sent to all CCC members. I think you will find it portrays the situation correctly as I had seen your comment. I hope that when the dust settles people will realize that we have a good candidate worthy of all Democrats support.

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