Obscure agency writing off state politician’s debt

““…Romero and various board members charged taxpayers for lunches in and around Santa Fe. These meals for a select group in no way furthered the public interest. They only benefited coalition insiders.”

BY:  | santafenewmexican.com

You miss a few payments on the $7,800 you owe on your car. A repo agent will take away your ride and your pride while the neighbors watch.

You fail to make payments on a years-old $7,800 credit card bill. The lender will make certain you suffer from the worry of being sued. All the while your debt will balloon with interest charges and late fees.

That’s the real world. Life isn’t as hard in the echelon of state Rep. Andrea Romero and her former employer, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.

The coalition’s board claims Romero still owes it $7,800 for impermissible expenses accrued during her tenure as its executive director from March 2016 to February 2018. It asked Romero in May to pay the bill.

Romero, D-Santa Fe, last month wrote a letter to the coalition disputing the debt attributed to her. She offered to pay nothing and pronounced herself blameless.

Her tactic appears to have worked. The coalition’s sitting executive director, Eric Vasquez, said Tuesday his board of directors is inclined to ignore Romero’s debt.

“At this point in time, the board does not have a plan to pursue something that could end up costing more than it’s worth,” Vasquez said. “You reach a point of diminishing return with legal action. Attorneys’ fees are rather expensive.”

The coalition used to be an obscure and useless organization operating on taxpayers’ dollars. It’s still useless, but it hasn’t been obscure since Romero’s failed leadership came to light.

She had a $140,000-a-year contract with the coalition that covered her salary and certain operational expenses.

Romero wasn’t rehired after the coalition’s misspending of public money became public.

Romero on Tuesday told me she’s repaid more than her share of any improper expenditures.

“I have already reimbursed RCLC for close to $2,000, based on the recommendation of Los Alamos County,” she wrote in an email. “The vast majority of this payment was for pre-approved expenses incurred by board members. To be clear, I paid RCLC back out of my pocket, as a contractor, for expenses incurred by others.”

Romero went on to say neither she nor any board member knowingly violated any standard for reimbursement.

“Both the State Auditor and the law firm hired by Los Alamos County reached the same conclusion,” she said.

Funny, but Romero and various board members charged taxpayers for lunches in and around Santa Fe. These meals for a select group in no way furthered the public interest. They only benefited coalition insiders.

Then there was Romero and board members running up a tab of $1,850.95 at the Casa Luca Restaurant in Washington, D.C. They spent money on booze as well as food at that outing.

Members of this favored group purchased bottles of Valdipiatta wine. My sources say then-Los Alamos County Councilor Rick Reiss ordered a $28 shot of WhistlePig whiskey. Reiss never responded when I asked him whether he drank the WhistlePig.

The coalition billed the public for more lavish late-night spending on food and booze at the Bull Ring in Santa Fe.

An unsophisticated college sophomore knows public money isn’t to be spent on alcohol, unnecessary trips to restaurants or extravagant meals.

Romero, though, says no one in the coalition knowingly did anything improper.

Romero won election to the state House of Representatives in 2018 while her scandal at the coalition unfolded.

She profited when her opponent in the Democratic primary, Rep. Carl Trujillo, came under even greater duress. A month before the election, lobbyist Laura Bonar accused Trujillo of sexually harassing her in 2013 and 2014.

Bonar later refused to testify under oath in a legislative inquiry, meaning her allegations against Trujillo were never heard in a public forum. By then, Trujillo was a lame-duck lawmaker and Romero was about to take office.

Romero’s troubles continued. A special state audit of the coalition listed 18 findings of bad financial practices. In addition, that audit stated the coalition misspent $51,500 in public money from July 1, 2014, through June 2018.

The auditors attributed more than $26,800 of the inappropriate spending to Romero. But the coalition board decided based on more investigation that Romero was responsible for about $7,800.

She said all of her requests for reimbursement were reviewed by Los Alamos County and the coalition’s then-treasurer, Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal.

Romero was the executive director, but she says she bore no responsibility for how the coalition operated or if her expenses were legitimate. In her view, someone else authorized reimbursements, so she shouldn’t be challenged by auditors or board members.

Federal taxpayers and those from nine area governments fund the coalition.

Vasquez is leaving at month’s end as its executive director. He says the organization is important to the public. In his view, it aggregates information and represents the region’s collective position on economic and environmental matters at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In truth, the public would get along fine without the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, especially after the economic ravages of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation has more clout and more knowledge about the lab than Romero, Vasquez and the coalition’s board.

Romero is campaigning for reelection in House District 46, dominated by Democrats.

Unlike two years ago, the Republicans have fielded a candidate to oppose her, civil engineer Jay Groseclose of Santa Fe.

Groseclose is an underdog. But after the way Romero ran the coalition, the last thing she deserves is a free ride to another term in the Legislature.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at [email protected] or 505-986-3080.


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