LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – We are learning more about why the Spaceport America CEO was put on paid administrative leave about a month ago. The state is investigating a complaint against Dan Hicks for “gross mismanagement and abuse of authority.”
In a whistleblower complaint from June, Chief Financial Officer Zach De Gregorio, who has since resigned, is accusing Hicks of pressuring him to “bend the rules,” compromising internal controls when it comes to finances.
The CEO has to work with the Spaceport Authority Board, the public body that governs the Spaceport. De Gregorio accuses Hicks of being dishonest and trying to keep information from Board Chair and Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes by not disclosing changes to the scope of work outlined in a request for proposal (RFP) for master planning in April.
De Gregorio recorded a phone call with Hicks where the CEO asked his CFO to copy him on all emails to the board.
“Until we get the new board in place and understand who they are and how they’re doing it, I want to see any communication that NMSA is gonna send to any of the board members,” Hicks is heard telling the CFO.
“And I’m telling you Dan, that’s an unacceptable request and I’m not going to follow that order,” De Gregorio responded.
Clearly, they disagreed on the issue.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what I did, and I would do it again,” De Gregorio said of an email he sent to the board to notify them of “significant changes” to an RFP. “Okay,” Hicks said.
After a long pause, he ended the call by saying, “Well, we got an issue.”
Finances at the Spaceport have been a touchy topic for years.
“We haven’t seen what was promised out of the Spaceport,” said Sen. George Munoz (D-Gallup).
“Do you feel like taxpayers are getting the bad end of this deal?” KRQE asked the senator.
“Oh, I know they are. I mean, in the ideal business world, you have to generate income and you have to generate income quickly to survive,” Sen. Munoz said.
The state invested more than $200 million to build the Spaceport near Truth or Consequences, starting in 2006. Hicks became the CEO about ten years later. And Wednesday, New Mexicans are still waiting to see Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight to space.
Sen. Munoz said he is glad someone spoke up in this case with a whistleblower complaint. “That’s where good people in good government jobs protect us, taxpayers,” he said.
The state said the investigation into the complaint could take several more weeks. Spaceport America said it could not comment on personnel matters, and the New Mexico Economic Development Department also declined KRQE’s request for an interview.
Hicks has been on paid leave since the whistleblower complaint was sent on June 12. His salary is $159,120, according to the state transparency website.
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