ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - The evidence is scattered across New Mexico like so much sand in the blustery, spring wind.
It includes a condemned warehouse, an empty office building and a nonexistent museum. The squandered millions--approved by the state Legislature--come dressed up in the fancy, euphemistic politician-speak known as “capital outlay.”
But New Mexicans know it better as “pork.”
“I think people should be outraged about what’s happened with this money,” said Tom Clifford, secretary of the state Department of Finance and Administration. “This is an issue that needs to be thoroughly investigated.”
Every year, state legislators funnel millions of dollars into projects that focus on community health, safety, quality of life and economic development. They include things like a new fire truck or repairs to a senior citizen’s center.
The high mark in recent years was 2007, when politicians poured almost $800 million into 3,400 community projects.
“This isn’t being done appropriately, and there’s a lot of money being misspent,” said Gov. Susana Martinez.
However, those figures tell only half the story. The other half is what really happens to all that money.
For example, in 2008, 12 Albuquerque legislators hit up taxpayers for $550,000 to buy a new dance studio for the National Institute of Flamenco, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the Spanish dance form.
Today, though, the only thing to show for the public’s money is a weed-choked, derelict warehouse near Lomas Boulevard and First Street. The building’s ceiling has fallen in, holes have formed in the roof and the walls are dangerously cracked.
The only occupants are stray cats, and other than a few costumes, not a single flamenco dancer is anywhere to be found.
The problem? After taxpayers had already bought the warehouse, city inspectors determined it should be demolished.
“The building that was purchased using state capital funds for the National Institute of Flamenco is basically in a state of complete disrepair,” said Rob Perry, chief administrative officer for the city of Albuquerque. “It’s uninhabitable and cannot be used for any sort of commercial or residential purpose.”
In 2007, an Albuquerque legislator single-handedly used $45,000 in public funds to buy two passenger vans for an Albuquerque state agency. But shortly after the vans were purchased, the titles were mysteriously and illegally transferred into private hands.
That was four years ago, and nobody in state government noticed that taxpayers’ $45,000 investment had been hijacked.
“The evidence (News 13’s Larry Barker) helped us dig up indicates that, in fact, actual title of the vans was at one point transferred to the nonprofit entity,” DFA's Clifford said. “And that’s where there was a breach of the state’s laws in terms of the appropriate use of public property.”
Another example of the alleged waste came in the form of the New Mexico Veteran’s Museum in Las Cruces. Never heard of it? That’s because it doesn’t exist.
Three years ago, a trio of legislators authorized $765,590 to design the museum, but nothing to build it.
Today those plans are stored in a Santa Fe back office.
Then there’s the Albuquerque Holocaust and Intolerance Museum. In 2008, 10 state legislators got together and decided to spend $1,693,550 in taxpayer money to buy an office building in downtown Albuquerque for the museum.
However, that was only enough money to buy the building, not renovate it. So museum officials declined the politicians’ offer and set up the Holocaust Museum down the street.
The office building has been sitting empty ever since.
Asked if he thought the Holocaust Museum project was “bungled,” Clifford said, “It feels like it to me.”
But that’s not all.
A state senator provided $80,000 in public funds for an Alamogordo veteran’s museum. The mismanaged project hit a snag, though, when Otero County failed to get state approval for a questionable lease agreement with a private group operating the museum.
Lastly, we come to the New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque’s post-season college football contest. In 2007, then-Gov. Bill Richardson handed the bowl $200,000 for a feasibility study and to purchase equipment.
But KRQE News 13’s investigation discovered that during the Richardson administration, officials at the state Department of Tourism illegally intercepted the entire $200,000 appropriation and used it for nonfootball purposes.
In the end, News 13’s investigation uncovered millions in wasted or misspent public dollars. In fact, state finance officials admitted there is so much money tied up in pork barrel projects, they can’t even keep track of it all.
“It’s obvious that there’s intentional financial abuse on some of the projects (News 13 investigated),” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee.
Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, has long criticized the capital outlay process.
“Every penny to every dollar that we spend needs to be tracked,” he said. “It needs to be accounted for, and it needs to be in a process that has already been vetted before the resources are let go for a project.”
That does not happen now, Campos said.
Smith said he thinks the Attorney General’s Office should investigate the “corruption.”
“(It’s) obviously shameful and it’s embarrassing when we’re here to represent the people and they expect us to be responsible in how we spend their dollars, and they find otherwise,” Smith said.
Martinez seconded those sentiments.
“The consequences of any individual, agency or elected official--or anyone who misspends taxpayer dollars--should be an investigation that includes a criminal investigation and a referral to the Attorney General’s Office,” she said. “There has to be some consequence for misspending taxpayer dollars.”
The Department of Finance and Administration has now referred the passenger van misappropriation and the $200,000 New Mexico Bowl fiasco to the Attorney General for a criminal investigation.
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