Commentary By KAY MATTHEWS
The attempts of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) to justify its existence are laughable. The Coalition is redundant, a waste of taxpayers’ money, and most egregious, a road block activists must break through to focus their energy on the long term goal: mission change at LANL.
As the taxpaying constituents of the nine-member board continue to call for its demise, as have three print newspapers—the Santa Fe New Mexican, the Journal North, and the Rio Grande Sun—(La Jicarita called for it to pull the plug months ago), and now some board members themselves, the new contractor, Chicanos Por La Causa New Mexico, issued a press release, extolling the coalition’s effectiveness as a lobbying voice for funding LANL. A recent Journal North article, takes a hard look at this self aggrandizing release, particularly at newly appointed RCLC executive director Eric Vasquez taking credit for “an increase of $42 million in cleanup spending to the region, moving dangerous contaminants from the land.” That is debunked in the same article by Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, who points out that the RCLC “acquiesced” to a recent, less restrictive legal agreement with New Mexico state government on cleanup of the Lab’s so-called “legacy waste” from decades of nuclear weapons work (the renegotiated 2005 Consent Decree).
The selection of Chicanos Por La Causa New Mexico as the new contractor of the RCLC is fraught with problems in and of itself, which I will detail later in the article, but since its inception in 2011 this organization called the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities has been a fraud. Let’s take a look.
Red Flags Raised in Taos
The mission statement of the RCLC says, “The Regional Coalition is a conduit for Northern New Mexico communities to make a direct impact on local, state and federal government decision-making in regional economic development and nuclear cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL). The Regional Coalition is comprised of elected and tribal officials representing their local communities to ensure national decisions incorporate local needs and interests.” These communities are the cities of Española, Santa Fe, and Taos, the counties of Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, and Taos, and the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh and Jemez Pueblo (to my knowledge Jemez has never participated and Ohkay Owingeh’s participation has been intermittent). The Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees LANL, contributes $100,000 annually to support the RCLC, while the member communities supply another $100,000.
But it is the Joint Powers Agreement that is the founding document where the first two clauses express support for funding of all missions at LANL, meaning nuclear weapons development: A (i) “promotion of new missions for LANL”; A (ii) “advocacy of long-term stable funding for LANL missions.” A citizen’s group in Taos tried to get the wording changed to reflect what they believed should be the focus of the RCLC—nuclear cleanup—and what the board was promoting as its mission. They were told it would be “too difficult” to change.
Another revelation confirmed their suspicions that all was not what it was purported to be. In a long article in March of 2013 I wrote about the connections between the RCLC and the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments, whose consultants helped in the formation of RCLC and who “assisted in the effort to convert Rocky Flats to a Wildlife Refuge, an outcome which required much lower standards for cleanup than, for example, human residency.” (Jeanne Green, a local Taoseña activist, in a letter to the Taos News.) Green’s point was that their influence on the creation of the RCLC created a credibility gap that the mission of the RCLC is to lobby for cleanup of LANL.
It appears the raison d’ etre of the Coalition is to lobby for LANL funding across the board, without any assessment of what that funding may be for or the impact it may have on the economic health—which the Coalition, the New Mexico congressional delegation, the state legislature, and the DOE equate with the social and environmental health—of the people of northern New Mexico.
That assessment was made manifest when members of the RCLC and other folks from the business community traveled to Washington D.C. on July 16 2012 to lobby for “retaining the $2.25 billion LANL budget.” At the July 17 meeting of the Regional Coalition in Española, Reverend Holly Beaumont of Santa Fe stood up and asked what the group’s position was on the controversial Chemistry and Metallurgy Replacement Research nuclear facility (CMRR) and if it would be lobbying to reinstate the funding that was recently put on hold. The coalition’s moderator quickly answered that the group did not have a position on the CMRR. Newly elected coalition chair, Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, added that the group lobbied for cleanup and was moving on to “economic development.” He didn’t address what that economic development entailed.
While Green and the Taos activists kept a watch on the RCLC and tried to get others who lived in its member communities to pay attention, most folks didn’t even know of its existence. That all changed in early 2018.
On February 15, 2018, Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights (NNMP), a nonprofit community group based in the Pojoaque area, wrote a letter to the board members of RCLC and to Los Alamos County, its fiscal agent. In the letter the officers of NNMP raised questions about expenditures and reimbursements made by RCLC members and executive director Andrea Romero on travel to Washington D.C. based on documents NNMP vice-president Dave Neal acquired via an “Inspection of Public Records Act” request. The letter questioned expenditures on alcohol (prohibited in RCLC travel policy), baseball tickets, and a first-class airfare ticket. The letter also questioned contract payments made to Romero (she worked for RCLC under Andrea Romero Consulting) by Los Alamos County that seemed to indicate over payment.
Many back and forth letters and e-mails among RCLC officers, executive director Romero, and Los Alamos County, attempted to account for these expenditures until a final review by the county chief financial officer released a finding of fact letter on February 21:
- Nineteen reimbursable payments were found questionable: lack of preauthorization of travel reimbursement request; meal receipt requests rather than per diem allowances; and reimbursements for business associates.
- Violations of prohibited expenses: alcoholic beverages; baseball tickets; and lack of supporting detail regarding other reimbursements.
- Andrea Romero Consulting: miscalculated claims; Los Alamos County missed payment.
- Questionable travel expenditures by Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and Española Mayor Alice Lucero but the findings were not conclusive because of unknown circumstances.
At the time Romero was challenging Democratic State Representative Carl Trujillo of District 46 in the primary election, which includes part of Santa Fe and the Pojoaque Valley, home to the Aamodt Adjudication Settlement. She claimed that NNMP’s involvement in this investigation “may be politically motivated” because only after she declared her candidacy for state representative against incumbent Carl Trujillo did any of the organizations officers “take interest in RCLC by attending her contract review session (Romero’s contact was up for renewal). She was referring to Beverly Duran-Cash, president of NNMP and Heather Nordquist, executive vice-president. Romero went on to say that NNMP has been a “strong, vocal, and consistent ally to Representative Carl Trujillo.” Presumably she was referring to Trujillo’s involvement with his constituents, including members of NNMP, in the Aamodt Adjudication Settlement and the road easement conflict between Santa Fe County and San Ildefonso Pueblo that was threatening the deliverance of county funds to the Settlement. She requested that the RCLC hire an attorney to “respond to allegations from NNMP” and to “consider lodging a formal request to Los Alamos National Laboratory to investigate” whether Duran-Cash and Nordquist, who are employees of LANL, filed the proper paper work with the Lab to make clear their work with an outside agency was not a conflict of interest and assured “ethics compliance.”
Nothing came of this request, of course, but in an even more bizarre twist, Trujillo was accused of sexual harassment by a lobbyist for an animal rights group, Romero won the primary, and Heather Nordquist is now running as a write-in candidate as a Democrat in the November election (there is no Republican candidate).
Audits and Paybacks
The saga of Romero’s culpability specifically and the RCLC generally continues. It’s unclear how much Romero actually had to pay back for her violations. According to an article in the New Mexican in March of 2018, the board of the RCLC deducted $2,200 from what it owed her, and also decided to withhold half of her $11,900 final payment for February. But in public statements Romero has said that she’s paid back only several thousand dollars.
A state audit found that the RCLC violated not only the coalition’s policies but also state law, to the tune of $51,000, from 2014 to 2018 (including the infamous $1,850 meal at an upscale restaurant in Washington, D.C., that included $380 for alcohol). The organization had never undergone a state audit despite a 2013 notice that it was required to do so. Then, in an independent investigation by Albuquerque Adams + Crow Law Firm, it appeared there was a possible attempt by Los Alamos County, the fiscal agent, to revise documents to conceal thousands of dollars of unlawful reimbursements of meals, liquor, and other spending. Some folks began calling for Attorney General Hector Balderas to initiate an investigation to see if there has been criminal wrongdoing on the part of the RCLC. Balderas has said a request has been made to his office to open an investigation but he hasn’t confirmed that he will do so.
Now state auditor Wayne Johnson is saying there may need to be additional follow up in the audit of the RCLC . In a Los Alamos Monitor article Johnson states that there were numerous items that should not have been reimbursed during Andrea Romero’s tenure, including $225.62 for 17 lunches at El Parasol restaurant in Pojoaque. Johnson points the figure at both Romero and Los Alamos County, and assuming the Coalition lasts, will be conducting annual audits. Johnson also said that he will be reviewing RCLC’s new contractor, Chicanos Por La Causa New Mexico, “in light of a recent Los Alamos Monitor article detailing a 2009 lawsuit brought against Roger Gonzales, Chicanos Por La Causa New Mexico’s president.” Which brings me back to what I referred to earlier in this article: problems with the new contractor’s reputation.
New RCLC Contractor Brings Its Own Baggage
The President and CEO of Chicanos Por La Causa New Mexico (formerly known as Siete del Norte) Roger Gonzales, has a scandalous past that traces back to his tenure in the educational system in Mora County. The New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) revoked his business license in 2012 and ordered him to pay $16, 466.84 that it claimed he misspent as interim superintendent and chief operations officer with the Mora Independent School District and was also fined $1,000. He also misrepresented his educational background and the PED accused him of diverting $64,000 into a “slush” fund and spending over $82,000 in lobbying expenditures. Gonzales appealed the PED’s pulling of his license but eventually dropped the appeal; he never paid the fine and the PED never pursued it. Gonzales ran on the Republican ticket against House Majority Brian Egolf in 2016 and lost by a landslide.
In another questionable transaction Chicanos Por La Causa New Mexico rented former RCLC Executive Director Andrea Romero some land to operate an ostrich farm near Ribera in San Miguel County. Romero received $41,000 in a loan from the Venture Acceleration Fund, a program established in 2006 by Los Alamos National Security LLC, (LANS), which manages LANL under a multibillion-dollar contract with the Department of Energy. Her business, Tall Foods/Tall Goods, was one of six Northern New Mexico businesses that received funding last year to boost growth. The fund is administered by the Regional Development Corporation. Romero received this money while serving as the executive director of the RCLC, which lobbies for increased funding for LANL. It also turns out that Romero serves on the advisory board of Chicanos Por La Causa, although the board is apparently inactive. Any conflicts of interest here?
Chicanos Por La Causa New Mexico has hired Eric Vasquez as the Executive Director of the RCLC at $169,288 per year. He’s part owner of The Valley Daily Post, an online publication, which published the news release promoting the RCLC in its entirety, as did the Los Alamos Daily Post, its sister newspaper. He’s the husband of 43rd District State Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, who’s running for State Land Commissioner. Vasquez was the only member of the RCLC to travel to Washington D.C. this year to attend a workshop sponsored by the Energy Communities Alliance. He told the Journal North there were no expense reimbursements submitted for approval, as Andrea Romero did last year, “because the management agreement between the Coalition and CPLC [Chicanos Por La Causa] stipulates that the contractor will absorb such costs.” Some travel and hotel expenses did come out of the RCLC budget. Vasquez claims that the role of the RCLC is “indispensable.”
RCLC: Are you Listening?
While all of RCLC’s controversies were unfolding, the activists in Taos, in coordination with others in the Pojoaque Valley and Española, had been working once again to demand changes in the Coalition’s Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) that conflict with the stated purpose of the Coalition to lobby Washington D.C. for funding to clean up toxic and radioactive waste at LANL. The FY 2018 Congressional Budget Request for Los Alamos National Laboratory for 2.48 billion taxpayer dollars allocates over 1.7 billion dollars or 69.8% to nuclear weapons activities, while only 188 million dollars or 7.6% are allocated for environmental cleanup. They presented their demands at the RCLC meeting on Friday, April 27, 2018 at Española City Hall:
1) Removal of the phrase in the JPA: “A (ii) advocacy of long-term stable funding for LANL missions” (i.e. lobbying for $ for nuclear bomb production at LANL).
2) Conflict of Interest: The RCLC Board must deal with conflict of interest. In addition to the new rules for the executive directorship, current or former employees of LANL or Sandia Labs being considered for board positions should undergo a stringent vetting process with public review in order to determine whether there is a conflict of interest. Or in the alternative, no elected official who is also an employee of LANL should be allowed to participate as a board member.
3) Public Participation: The RCLC board must expand opportunities for public participation: move the public comment period to the beginning of the meeting, and allow for public discussion during the meeting and before decisions are made. The current 15 minute public comment period at the end of each meeting with no interaction between public and board cheats the democratic process.
In response the board changed the wording of A (i) from “advocacy of funding of LANL missions” to “advocacy of funding of LANL missions that citizens of the Coalition members support.” The board was supposed to send that information out to all the community members via their representatives, but that didn’t happen: it was only confirmed when activists went to the RCLC web site to verify the change.
During the same time, the Taos group submitted a packet to the Town of Taos asking the Town to adopt two complementary resolutions relating to cleanup of radioactive and hazardous waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory and planned expanded nuclear weapons activities at the Lab. Subsequent to this submission, The United States Conference of Mayors unanimously adopted the sweeping new 2018 Mayors For Peace Resolution on June 11, “Calling on the Administration and Congress to Step Back From the Brink and Exercise Global Leadership in Preventing Nuclear War.” The group asked the town to adopt both the resolutions and the Mayors for Peace Resolution. The resolutions called for the Town of Taos to:
- Request that the New Mexico Environment Department strengthen and enforce the 2016 Revised Consent Order to call for additional characterization of legacy nuclear wastes, increased funding for comprehensive cleanup of legacy nuclear and hazardous waste, and significant additional safety training;
- Request the DOE to halt plutonium pit production due to the risk of earthquakes that can never be fully predicted or eliminated.
The group met with the town attorney and RCLC Representative and Council member, Darien Fernandez in June in order for the resolution to undergo “required” legal review. The manager was scheduled to attend but was a no show. Changes suggested by counsel were made and approved and the group disbanded with a consensus. Many weeks later Fernandez got the resolutions placed on the workshop agenda for discussion and possible approval for a regular meeting. Suzie Schwartz, who attended the legal review meeting and submitted the changes which were approved, said, “Unfortunately, at that meeting the legally vetted and approved documents were never presented, but instead, the prevetted version was projected: neither town council member Fernandez nor town legal counsel realized they were looking at the wrong document. The wrong document was not challenged by the group in attendance either and the discussion descended into the usual bickering among the town government factions. The wrong resolution was then sent back to the drawing board once again.
Regarding the Town and County’s positions regarding the RCLC, Schwartz, who had been sending RCLC representatives Fernandez and Taos County Mark Gallegos a number of the articles and editorials regarding ongoing issues in the Coalition, sent a long email to Gallegos and Fernandez on 9/11 requesting that the town and county withdraw from the coalition on a number of grounds. Fernandez sent her this reply: “As far as the town is concerned, we are going to remain in the coalition for one more year and then reassess.” Gallegos failed to respond at all. Schwartz replied asking why there had been no opportunity for public input.
To date there is zero response.
I doubt there’s going to be anything to reassess. Certainly the citizen group in Taos will continue to call for its demise and to work for mission change. We’ll see what transgressions state auditor Johnson finds this time. And we’ll see if it all implodes under the very dubious “leadership” of Chicanos Por La Causa. I certainly hope this is the last time I write about it other than to say, adios RCLC.