NM’s ‘Chief Transparency Officer' shines light on bad government

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By Tris DeRoma

Like some other government officials, New Mexico State Auditor Wayne Johnson started his political career as an ordinary citizen who had a negative experience with his local government. Johnson, a Republican, is running for state auditor this year in the General Election.


Johnson started his public life when he got involved in a dispute with a neighbor who had deep political connections.

“I felt like I wasn’t treated fairly. I decided, ‘well, I can get mad and continue to yell at the TV, or I can do something about it,’” Johnson said.

Johnson’s first successful run for office was for Bernalillo County Commissioner, where he quickly became known as the commissioner who pushed for greater transparency in government, ethics and accountability, things he’s been building his public career on ever since. While in office, he said, he was responsible for creating one of the strongest Sunshine Portals in the state. New Mexico’s Sunshine Portals are transparency and accountability programs New Mexico’s municipal and county governments offer citizens.

“My platform and my first act was about transparency. It’s one of the best tools to use to modify good behavior in government. People tend to act better if they know they are being observed,” Johnson said.

He noted that his early fights for transparency have helped in his current job as Auditor for the State of New Mexico.
Johnson was elected Bernalillo County Commissioner for District 5 in 2010, and was reelected in 2014.

Gov. Susana Martinez appointed him as New Mexico State Auditor in 2017. He is running for election against Democrat Brian Colon.

Lately, Johnson’s Special Investigations Unit has been in overdrive. His office has been investigating a slew of complaints made by citizens about unique organizations created by government agencies.

During an interview with the Los Alamos Monitor Thursday, Johnson said his office has been busy fielding complaints from citizens reporting suspected wrongdoing by these groups, many of whom are not known that well by the public.

He points to his audit of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, a group fiscally managed by Los Alamos County, as a prime example of these types of groups.

RCLC made headlines this year when a complaint came into his office that the organization may have been misspending funds and reimbursing those attached to the lobbying group for unlawful travel and business expenses. A report from the state auditor released in August found 18 instances of improper reporting, duplicate billing, and reimbursements for personal items, alcohol and meals, which are a violation of state law.

“When (government agencies create another organization with another government structure that receives dollars that are never audited, that’s where the danger is, that’s what RCLC is,” Johnson said. “That’s a whole executive staff, in this case a contract executive, who has a board that then directs the use of those funds… that is the animal I’m looking for.”

Sometimes, the auditor’s office finds financial abuse wasn’t done on purpose, but because the organization just didn’t know what it was doing. Johnson said he’s interested in correcting that type of waste.

“You can have great, pristine audits for years, and then suddenly, someone retires… and nobody knows how to make the machine run again,” Johnson said. “Even if they do, they may be a good accountant, but they don’t understand what the law is.”

If elected, Johnson said he would expand a performance-based audit fund his office operates to help facilitate statewide training for communities and organizations that have a history of struggling with their audits. Johnson said he’s talked to many state finance organizations like the New Mexico Municipal League and others about his idea.

“I’d like to set up some sort of training – a collaboration with these groups – where we can maintain independence but they have access to training,” Johnson said, adding this could also lead to a mentor or networking resource that these same organizations and communities could draw on to stay in compliance with the law.

Johnson would also like to see his office assigned campaign finance auditing, something that he says the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office only handles 10 percent of.

“I’m not casting any dispersions or any denigrations on the secretary of state. She’s got a big job running elections,” he said. “I understand that it’s probably not the most important thing on her plate, but I think it’s important to the public, and I think people want to know that their elected officials are using the money they give them legally for campaigns.”

Johonson continued, “If we did that the audit work and handed it over the secretary of state, which is what we do anyway for any kind of enforcement action, I think that’s a good leveraging of skills from the OSA and making it easier for the SOA to do her job.”

Johnson is also looking to help protect the assets of citizens who are in a guardianship assigned by the state judicial system. Johnson said his office already has a memorandum of understanding with the courts to perform audits to track misspent fund, but he’s also going to ask the Legislature to make it official.

“We’re going to ask the Legislature for specific authority to audit the finances of people who have, in essence, become wards of the state through a conservator,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, this also is about transparency and independent verification.

“What I’m going to ask the Legislature to do is to give me the authority to perform these audits on my own, without directly being under the purvue of the courts. That way you truly get independence from any potential perception of misconduct,” Johnson said. “Often times, when families feel like the judge isn’t making the right decision, they are always claiming that there’s some sort of collusion between that party and this party, and we want to make sure it’s very clear there’s no collusion, no coordination. We work with each other, but we are an independent voice in their view, so what we find is what we find.

Johnson said all the present and future goals he has for the office are about saving taxpayer money, not impunity.

“…Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to correct errors, not just run around and point fingers at people. It’s about getting people into compliance, it’s about implementing good accounting practices and controls, using the money wisely and not reimbursing things that are impermissible under law and their own local policy. It’s about making sure those dollars are going to where they are intended to go.”

Johnson was born and raised in Albuquerque.  He is a graduate of Sandia High School and the University of New Mexico and has a degree in university studies with an emphasis in computer engineering and film/television. Johnson is the owner and president of the family-owned business, Vista Media Productions, which was started in 1975. He is married to Albuquerqe-native Kurstin Schneider Johnson, who owns Vista Encantada Real Estate.