No, It’s Your Money
By State Auditor Wayne Johnson
“We honestly believe this is our money.” Seven words spoken by Representative Jim Trujillo to the Albuquerque Journal eloquently – if unintentionally – illustrate a shocking lack of understanding of public money and the absolute necessity for an independent NM State Auditor.
Trujillo chairs the North Central NM Economic Development District (NCNMEDD) and was explaining why a recent audit showed thousands of public dollars used for expensive parties and employee bonuses when the state faced serious budget cuts.
The NCNMEDD has a state contract to administer state and federal funds for senior centers and programs like Meals on Wheels and Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in nearly every county.
I recently visited the J.O.Y. Center in Roswell where senior services - like meals and transportation - were cut by $45,947 while NCNMEDD spent thousands at gaming venues, 4-star restaurants, and boutique hotels for its own staff, plus $57,400 in employee bonuses. Doña Ana County seniors lost $45,106 and Santa Fe County lost $43,078. Overall, $617,998 were cut from senior programs statewide.
I met hard working staff and volunteers who aren’t eating 4-star meals and staying in fancy hotels. They’re stretching every dollar to serve quality, nutritional, hot meals to as many seniors as possible, in the centers and at home. They’re struggling to fill budget gaps they say mean fewer meals and home visits while drivers aren’t available to pick up the home-bound for doctor visits.
By using money for themselves while budgets shrank, the NCNMEDD was quite literally taking food from the tables of NM seniors. It’s like reaching into your wallet and taking $50 so they can have a great time.
This is our money is an appalling attitude but not isolated when reviewing the NCNMEDD. A previous audit revealed similar financial mismanagement when they lost records of almost $1 million taxpayer dollars and 12 miles of fiber optic cable meant to provide internet to underserved areas.
NCNMEDD isn’t the only entity who seems to believe that this is our money. Another special audit found the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities did, too. Thousands of dollars were spent on expensive restaurants, wines and whiskeys, and tickets to a professional baseball game: board members wined and dined by their executive director at your expense.
It’s not legal and it’s not okay. The State Legislature adopted laws requiring transparency and accountability to ensure that public funds aren’t wasted, abused or stolen.
As the State’s top transparency officer, it’s my job to ensure that every state and local government follows the laws and policies that protect your tax dollars. I have found too many public bodies hidden in the dark recesses of bureaucracy. I’m determined to change that.
The New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool is one example. The Legislature created it to provide health insurance to people rejected by private insurers. To do so, the Pool taxes insurance companies, including those that provide Medicaid coverage. To do business in NM, insurance companies are required to fund the pool. It shocked me to find that the “High-Risk Pool” has never provided a complete financial/compliance audit.
For nearly 30 years the Pool and its Chairman – the Superintendent of Insurance – have operated in the dark, as if it’s their money. They’ve even taken the drastic step of suing my office to prevent the public from knowing how they operate – despite multiple violations found last year by my predecessor.
Others who believed it’s their money were unscrupulous “guardians” appointed by the Courts to protect adults unable to manage their own affairs. I’m working with judges statewide to prevent the most vulnerable among us from having their finances fleeced by those entrusted to protect them.
Waste, fraud, and abuse abhor sunlight and thrive in darkness. There are simply too many officials who believe that “this is our money”.
They are wrong.
Last year New Mexico seniors suffered. Who knows who else has or will be harmed by this casual disregard for your money? As your State Auditor, I’m committed to making sure your money is used appropriately, lawfully, and wisely.
State Auditor Wayne Johnson was appointed to the position in December 2017 and previously served as a Bernalillo County Commissioner. He encourages anybody who suspects waste, fraud, or abuse in a government agency to report it by visiting www.saonm.org or calling 1-866-OSA-FRAUD. Anonymous reports are accepted.
A STRONG INDEPENDENT VOICE FOR NEW MEXICO'S FAMILIES