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There’s apparently no love lost between Secretary of State Mary Herrera and Los Alamos Chief Deputy Clerk Sheryl Nichols.
What first surfaced earlier in the week as tensions between the two over problems with the statewide voter computer system now appears to be on the verge of erupting into a full-blown feud.
During a telephone call as she traveled north from Las Cruces Thursday, Herrera unloaded 18 months worth of suppressed exasperation.
“Sheryl Nichols has called the newspapers every time she thought she could make me look bad and I’ve had enough,” Herrera said.
Herrera mentioned a letter she received from an unnamed source in the Los Alamos County Clerk’s Office that she said described Nichols, who also serves as president of the state association of county clerks, as being engaged in an ongoing e-mail exchange with a small group of county clerks in an effort to raise questions about Herrera’s job performance.
She said she believes that County Administrator Tony Mortillaro received the same letter, but he said he didn’t know anything about it, suggesting that it may have gone to his predecessor Max Baker. Mortillaro did confirm that on July 26, through a Public Records Act request, a “Mary Herrera” did ask for copies of e-mails generated by Nichols.
Herrera’s telephone call Thursday was initiated by several calls from the Monitor to her office Wednesday inquiring into a report by Nichols that she and other county clerks were locked out of the statewide voter system. Herrera said Thursday that it was a minor computer glitch that was repaired quickly.
“Sheryl never contacted my office to report a problem and she filed her reports in a timely manner so she wasn’t locked out of the system,” Herrera said. “She uses anything she can as an excuse to call the newspapers and say something bad about me. I’ve had to take this from her and a few other county clerks she talks with for a year-and-a-half but I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Nichols said she is not aware of any action resulting from Herrera’s request of her e-mails. Nichols responded to Herrera’s Thursday comments saying, “I absolutely did not – I have no idea where she gets her information – her accusations are totally baseless.”
The war of words between Herrera and Nichols was punctuated Thursday with the release of an annual audit of the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office.
Conducted by a New Mexico accounting firm, the audit returned no findings, according to the report released by Atkinson & Co., Ltd., giving the office a clean audit and no findings of significant deficiencies.
The firm returned an “unqualified” opinion, meaning that in the auditor’s professional opinion, the financial statements passed muster without any “qualifications,” according to the report.
The audit also looks at internal controls. In examining internal controls over financial reporting, auditors will seek to ensure the agency has established effective procedures to reduce the chances of errors or fraud. The current Secretary of State audit found “no findings” of control deficiencies.
“When you have good solid management principles and put them into practice with competent people, you end up with a clean audit,” Herrera said. “The staff of the Secretary of State’s office deserves a great deal of credit for such an excellent result.”
The Secretary of State’s office has sought to reduce the number of audit findings each year. In 2007, 20 findings pertaining to the former administration were identified. Over the last four years, the Secretary of State’s Office reduced the number each year until the audit just completed for fiscal year 2010 found none.
In March, Attorney General Gary King launched an investigation into allegations that Herrera solicited “donations from companies that contract with her office and ordered some of her employees to gather signatures on petitions for her re-election campaign.” The allegations were brought forward by A. J. Salazar, a former deputy district attorney who, after only 11 months on the job, quit after having discovered what he called a “crooked organization” in the secretary of state’s office.
Nearly five months after the case was first brought to the attention of the Attorney General’s office, the FBI was brought in to determine whether or not Attorney General Gary King “attempted to cover up allegations of wrongdoing.” In September, Herrera fired two of her administrators who talked to the FBI about possible wrongdoing in her office. Her deputy, Don Francisco Trujillo, stated at the time that the firings had nothing to do with alleged whistle-blowing.
Herrera, 54, is the second highest ranking Hispanic elected official in the country, second only to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. She is one of only two state-wide elected Hispanic women and is the highest ranking elected Hispanic woman in the United States.
Completing her first four-year term, Herrera, a Democrat, faces Republican State Sen. Dianna Duran of Tularosa in Tuesday’s general election.