New Mexico elected officials violate state law

Larry Barker

Ask Public Regulation Commissioner Pat Lyons about KRQE News 13’s year-long investigation and he will tell you, it’s just “fake news.”

Even though Commissioner Lyons dismisses his troubles as fake news, our investigation finds the only thing that’s fake, are the documents Lyons uses to circumvent state law. In fact, KRQE News 13’s investigation finds Lyons has been violating state statute for years.

“I think when you take an oath to serve publicly you should meet all the requirements that are that are being asked of you,” says New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.

The Public Regulation Commission oversees everything from utility rates to pipeline safety, ambulance rates to telecommunications. As one of New Mexico’s most important state agencies, the PRC is governed by five elected Commissioners.

To ensure expertise on technical aspects of the job, state law requires PRC Commissioners obtain 32 hours of annual continuing education relating to utility regulation. Lawmakers deemed this prerequisite to be so important that, according to statute, any Commissioner who fails to obtain the required education can’t collect their salary.

“Every member of the public who pays a monthly utility bill is directly impacted by the decisions the PRC Commissioners make,” says Fred Nathan, Executive Director of the non-partisan think tank, Think New Mexico. “They have a right to expect since they’re taxpayers and paying the salaries of these Commissioners that they are properly trained to do their jobs.”

Consider the case of Commissioner Patrick Lyons. “I complied with all of the statute requirements for my continuing education,” Lyons says.

However, KRQE News 13’s investigation finds Pat Lyons is in violation of state law for failure to meet his educational obligations. In fact, documents show the Commissioner covered up his non-compliance by fabricating academic credentials.

Each time a Commissioner takes an education course they receive an official document called a Certificate of Completion which verifies attendance and course credit hours. According to state statute, each Commissioner is responsible for having the endorsing organization submit a Certificate of Completion to the PRC’s Chief of Staff.

Commissioner Lyons’ continuing education file contains more than a dozen completion certificates. However, there’s something fishy about those documents. 

“They (Commissioner Lyons’ continuing education certificates) don’t appear to be legitimate,” says PRC Chief of Staff Ernest Archuleta. “I believe that the certificates need to come from the endorsing organization. They’re different from what other Commissioners have submitted,” Archuleta said.

The PRC’s Chief of Staff says he doesn’t know who created the education certifications submitted by Pat Lyons. Lyons admits he created the documents.

According to statute, in order to receive credit, Commissioners must enroll in educational classes endorsed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or NARUC. However, in Commissioner Lyons’ case, he attended routine meetings and called them continuing education. Lyons covered up the deception with his own academic credentials.

For example, when Commissioner Lyons attended a NARUC Conference in June, he awarded himself 20 hours of continuing education credit. He gave himself 4.5 hours for sitting in on a New Mexico Energy Symposium, which is not a NARUC endorsed program. And when he attended the Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners last year, Commissioner Lyons arbitrarily decided it was worth 12 hours continuing education credit.

NARUC Executive Director Greg White says routine meetings do not necessarily qualify for continuing education credit as defined by New Mexico statute. “To receive an endorsement (for continuing education) from NARUC we would review their program,” White says. “We’re looking for the value to our members and the relevance to the duties (of our) members… We’re looking for certain features of those programs (that are) more of an academic level.”

“In terms of our educational requirements as required by the statute, I do not believe that meetings or conferences satisfy that statute,” says PRC Commissioner Valerie Espinoza.

In his role as a New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner, Pat Lyons serves on the board of a regional energy group in Little Rock, Arkansas called Southwest Power Pool. When Lyons attends Southwest Power Pool meetings he routinely marks it down as “continuing education.” Southwest Power Pool meetings are not endorsed by NARUC for continuing education.

As an example, in 2016 Lyons attended a Southwest Power Pool Board of Directors meeting and then submitted his own Certificate of Completion claiming six hours of continuing education credit. Lyons says Southwest Power Pool “helped” him create the Certificate. “They told me what to put in there,” Lyons says. Executives at Southwest Power Pool would not comment on their role in signing off on Commissioner Lyons’ continuing education. 

“In my opinion, I don’t believe that (Commissioner Lyons) has fully complied with the statute,” says PRC Chief of Staff Ernest Archuleta. “Those continuing education credits need to be endorsed by NARUC. Many of those documents that have been provided by Commissioner Lyons are not NARUC certified,” Archuleta says.

Remember, the New Mexico statute specifies, if a Commissioner fails to comply with the continuing education requirements then their compensation “shall be withheld by the Commission.” Pat Lyons says he does not plan to return his salary. “That’s a hypothetical question and we’ll answer it when it comes down,” Lyons says. 

And it’s not just Pat Lyons. PRC records show Commissioner Lynda Lovejoy also hasn’t complied with the education requirements. Lovejoy does not have the mandated 32 credit hours of annual training. Many of Commissioner Lovejoy’s attendance certificates are for utility industry meetings.

“As far as I’m concerned (industry meetings are) continuing education,” Commissioner Lovejoy says. “This is professional development. I just cannot agree that this is just a meeting. I think it will be found that I have complied with the statute,” Commissioner Lovejoy says.

PRC Chairman Sandy Jones admits in 2015 and 2017 he did not meet the PRC continuing education requirements. Jones says it was a “mistake.”

“I think we all have a responsibility to see that the statutes are complied with,” Commissioner Jones says. “Certainly in my case, there was an error there. I think that it’s incumbent on the other commissioners (to comply). They have to answer to their voters and I think that it’s best for them to make that decision,” Jones says.

“My advice to the PRC and the Commission is, just follow the law,” says Attorney General Hector Balderas. “Take the education requirements seriously and don’t expose your agency to any other type of liabilities. Learn from the past scandals.”

“This is something we will be engaging the PRC and advising them how they really should comply with the law,” Balderas says. “They shouldn’t be bending the rules…especially a body that is setting rates and costs for consumers and energy companies in the state of New Mexico.”

“To anyone that pays a utility bill, who is a taxpayer, (they have) a right to expect these PRC Commissioners have the knowledge and training to do their jobs correctly,” says Think New Mexico’s Fred Nathan. “It’s part of their job. I think most adults everywhere in the world understand that if they don’t fulfill the requirements for their job they shouldn’t be paid. And I don’t see why the PRC should be any different.”

Commissioners Valerie Espinoza and Cynthia Hall are in compliance with the continuing education requirements of state law.

Commissioners Jones and Lovejoy were defeated in the June Primary Election and will be leaving the PRC when their terms expire at the end of the year. Commissioner Lyons did not seek re-election to the PRC. His term also ends next month. Lyons was defeated in the General Election in a bid for State Land Commissioner. 

Side by side comparisons of invalid (left) vs. valid (right) certificates below. Hover over the blue circle and move left and right to view documents. 

Click here to view invalid (left) vs. valid (right)

Click here to view invalid (left) vs. valid (right)

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

 

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