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County seeks $20,000 more for Regional LANL Coalition ethics investigation

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Ex-Dir. Romero could not meet with ethics investigators during primary election

By Tris DeRoma

Los Alamos County Council was asked to consider spending an additional $20,000 on an ethics investigation into the county’s role in a funding controversy regarding the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Tuesday.

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The county has already spent $30,000 since March to look into whether councilors were involved in a questionable expenses of coalition funds during a trip to Washington, D.C.

In February, allegations surfaced that former Executive Director Andrea Romero made between $1,800-$2,000 in unauthorized travel expenses while coalition members and councilor Rick Reiss were on a business trip in Washington, D.C., in September 2017 to talk to LANL officials and New Mexico’s congressional representatives about the community’s interests.

Romero acted as host to coalition and government officials during meetings with government officials.

“One of the most important priorities we have as councilors is to make sure tax dollars are spent appropriately,” said Councilor Susan O’Leary Tuesday.

O’Leary accused the vice chair and chair of the county council Tuesday of not telling county officials or the council about financial mismanagement problems with the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities that surfaced in February.

O’Leary asked Los Alamos County to open an ethics investigation in March into the council’s part in the travel expenses and reimbursement surrounding the trip.

The Adams and Crow Law Firm was hired by the county to investigate allegations of improper expenses and reimbursements related to the regional coalition and Romero.

Los Alamos County councilors and other coalition members often accompanied Romero when talking to New Mexico’s congressional members about Los Alamos National Laboratory issues.

The county voted Tuesday night to have the investigators meet with the county manager and his staff to give a detailed presentation on what the $30,000 was spent on and what the $20,000 would buy.

The council voted 6-1 to approve the motion, with Reiss voting no.

Accusations fly

O’Leary accused Chandler of withholding information.

“I can’t imagine that you, a board (sic) secretary, didn’t know that,” O’Leary said to Chandler, who serves on the coalition. “But I’m waiting for the investigation to tell us what really happened before I have a final understanding of the situation.”

Chandler immediately replied to O’Leary, saying, “Councilor O’Leary, in your complaint, you identify no one. There was no person identified as someone you believed was engaging in misconduct. I’m a little perplexed that all of a sudden, we’re now hearing this from you… when you cannot identify anyone in your complaint as people you believed to have engaged in this conduct.”

Chandler, O’Leary and another person O’Leary accused of withholding information, County Chair David Izraelevitz, are all Democrats.

Chandler had only been a part of the coalition for six months prior to the accusations surfacing as a representative for Los Alamos County. The coalition represents the interests of nine communities near the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It was founded in 2011.

“I was extremely disappointed with Councilor O’Leary’s comments toward the actions of Vice Chair Chandler and I at last night’s meeting,’ Izraelevitz said. “From the Adams+Crow interim presentation, there seems to be no factual basis to believe that anyone on Council or County staff acted with malice or bad intent. I would expect that such an accusation during an open Council meeting would have some basis on factual knowledge.”

The investigators told the council that so far, they have found no intentional wrongdoing by any Los Alamos County councilor who served on the coalition or anyone other official associated with the coalition.

“Notwithstanding, the investigation has raised concerns related to RCLC’s accounting, use of public funds, and treatment as a nongovernmental entity and how that activity might bear upon the role of the RCLC treasurer when such office was held by a Los Alamos County Councilor,” said an update by investigators included in county documents. The report was referred to Councilor Kristin Henderson, who served on county council from 2013-2016.

Izraelevitz further defended Chandler and hoped that after the county completed its investigation, the coalition would be a stronger, more professional organization.

“There are certainly lessons to be learned, such as better defining the structure of the RCLC, handling travel expenses, and the responsibilities of our County as the RCLC fiscal agent, and these lessons should inform future actions,”

Izraelevitz said. “However, I have seen nothing to shake my confidence in the intentions and abilities of Councilor Chandler. On the contrary, she has been diligent in requiring full disclosure and analysis of all aspects of the RCLC, as was noted in one of her newspaper endorsements during the primary campaign, and has been an excellent advocate for the County’s interests on the RCLC board.”

Romero unavailable

One of the investigators, Alana M. De Young, said they have not yet interviewed Romero about the expense issue because of scheduling conflicts.

Romero was recently in a heated Democratic primary against incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo for 46th District seat in the state Legislature. Romero won the nomination after promoting unsubstantiated sexual harassment claims against Trujillo.

Romero said Thursday she was contacted five days before the election to meet with investigators, and again after the election, but has not yet been able to meet due to scheduling conflicts.

“We tried to set up something on Wednesday after the election and that did not work out,” Romero said. “It’s just a different situation now that I’m elected.”

Romero said now that she is an elected official, she would like to know before the meeting the questions she will be asked by investigators.

“I was just trying to understand what the actual investigation was about,” she said. “I was just trying to understand just what information they need.”

Romero, who now works as the director of Mix Santa Fe and as an ostrich farmer, said she already has seen glaring errors in the investigation.

“It’s just an important threshold to understand what (the questions) are going to be looking like,” she said. “It’s just a matter of due process.”

The coalition is also being investigated by New Mexico State Auditor Wayne Johnson, who told Los Alamos County officials last week they are in the beginning phases of the investigation, which center on Romero’s activities and the coalition’s general financial practices.

“We have not found any definitive evidence that there was knowledge or a knowing violation in the three areas that I previously described,” De Young said. “However, additional analysis and review of the documents are needed in order to make a final conclusion.” The last part of their investigation involves councilors who served on the coalition.

When asked whether or not there was double dipping, where officials would turn in the same expenses to the county and another set to the coalition, De Young would not answer.

“We’re not prepared to answer that one way or another. I do want to finalize our investigation in that regard,” De Young said.

In a further discussion about the vote, O’Leary said the reimbursement issue wasn’t as important as the fundamental flaws in how the coalition operates.

“So don’t look at it as an issue about the reimbursements. I look at it as an issue of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that this county has put into the coalition since 2011. (The coalition is made up of eight other communities. Each contributes funding to the coalition every year to pay its executive director, staff and to keep it operating.) “Because we have done that, we haven’t done other things.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Councilor Chris Chandler did not attend the Washington, D.C., trip in September 2017 that has resulted in an investigation into questionable expenses.