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Council Approves Ethics Investigation Involving RCLC

on March 7, 2018 - 12:10pm

County Manager Harry Burgess, center, discusses issues related to the handling of travel expenses submitted by the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities and the timeline since these issues began to surface last fall. Councilor Susan O'Leary and County Attorney Alvin Leaphart look on. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Members of the Los Alamos County Council at the Special Session Monday evening in Council Chambers, from left, Councilor Rick Reiss, Vice Chair Christine Chandler, Chair David Izraelevitz, Antonio Maggiore, Pete Sheehey and Susan O'Leary. Councilor James Chrobocinski was absent. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

 

By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post

As a result of the discovery of questionable and concerning issues in the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities’ (RCLC) finances, including its travel policy and the request for an ethics investigation filed by Los Alamos County Councilors James Chrobocinski and Susan O’Leary, the County Council approved Monday evening to move forward with an independent investigation.

Furthermore, the council agreed that the outside counsel should present an investigative plan by April 3. The motion passed 6-0 during a special meeting Monday night; Chrobocinski was absent.

O’Leary commented that she supported the council moving forward with the investigation that would answer questions in her and Chrobocinski’s complaint. She added she would be amenable to withdrawing the complaint if an investigation was conducted. O’Leary said she believed Chrobocinski would be amenable, too.

“I think that we need to start with a clean slate once we get through this rough patch,” O’Leary said.

Council Vice Chair Christine Chandler wondered what the cost of this investigation would be. County Attorney Alvin Leaphart estimated it would be $30,000 or more.

It is a necessary expense, Councilor Pete Sheehey said.

“The problem is without a good investigation the public feels something is hidden,” Sheehey said. “The RCLC is an important organization; we need it to work right; we need it to be trusted.”  

There was lengthy discussion about the specifics the investigation should cover. In O’Leary’s and Chrobocinski’s complaint, there are five issues outlined:

  • A Feb. 21, 2018 Los Alamos County memo “Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) Review,” identifies serious expense charge improprieties by the RCLC, which may include improper gifts of meals, sporting event tickets, and alcohol provided to officials of Los Alamos County and others. The investigation should determine the nature and extent of any improper items of value or prohibited items accepted by current or former elected or appointed officials of Los Alamos County.
  • The investigation should determine whether any current or former elected or appointed officials of Los Alamos County double billed taxpayers by accepting meals paid for by RCLC while also claiming per diem reimbursement for meals expense from the RCLC, Los Alamos County, or any other governmental funding source.
  • The investigation should determine whether any current or former elected or appointed official acting on behalf of Los Alamos County as Treasurer of the RCLC or otherwise signed approval of improper expenses incurred by RCLC.
  • It appears that several members of the Los Alamos County Council and County staff were intimately aware of the severity and extent of the allegations of impropriety at the RCLC, yet these improprieties have not been disclosed to the full County Council or the public by these officials. The communications that have been forwarded to the full County Council by officials in emails have been misleading or incomplete. The investigation should consider whether the communications of Los Alamos County officials in this matter have been intentionally misleading with the purpose of concealing misconduct.
  • Finally, the investigation should conduct a review to determine if Los Alamos County internal controls are sufficient to safeguard against similar improprieties or misconduct involving elected or appointed officials of Los Alamos County in cases where Los Alamos County provides funding to groups other than RCLC.

As result of the concerns with the RCLC and the ethics complaint, Council Chair David Izraelevitz requested to hold the special meeting. He explained Los Alamos County is the fiscal agent of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.

“Justifiable attention has been given in our community and  in the press to the travel policies of this organization - specifically some travel expenses whose reimbursement has come into question,” Izraelevitz said. “One of the key responsibilities of this body is to provide transparency for our governance and also to provide setting for factual inquiry, so it is important to present in a public forum and at the earliest opportunity all the accessible information regarding the events and policies under review.”

He said, “I hope that the result of tonight will be Councilor consensus on the relevant issues at hand, a consensus that can structure the appropriate investigation of the RCLC events and Councilor complaint.”

In a prepared statement, Chandler said, “In January 2017, I was appointed to the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Board of Directors ... I was elected Secretary approximately six months into my tenure on the Board, and I continue in that role.”

“I first learned of Councilors O’Leary’s and Chrobocinski’s complaint when I was contacted by a newspaper reporter on Wednesday (Feb. 28),” Chandler said. “Although I have not yet seen a copy of the actual complaint I am relying on what was provided to the media by the complainants and published. Because the allegations of the complainants are so open-ended and vague, it is difficult to know how to respond.”

“I would like to make clear that in the 13 months that I have served on the Board, I have not been on any out of state trips with or for the Coalition. As a consequence, I have not received any travel reimbursements from the Coalition,” she said.

She added she would cooperate and support an inquiry into whether elected officials or employees violated travel policies or attempted to conceal possible improprieties associated with expense reimbursements.

In her own prepared remarks, Councilor O’Leary said she wanted to clarify that the ethics complaint is that they don’t know what happened.

“We’re not specifically saying what kind of wrongdoing or if there was any wrongdoing done yet. I just wanted to make sure that was clear,” she said before going on to read the complaint, which was published March 1 in the Los Alamos Daily Post.

Prior to listing the issues for investigation, O’Leary said that speaking for herself, she didn’t know if the situation reflected very poor communication or “a deliberate attempt to withhold information.”

“An independent investigation can give us an unbiased, fair and credible answer to that question,” she said. “Further, I don’t know why the Deputy County Manager apologized for this situation when it seems unlikely that he or his finance department had anything to do with it.”

O’Leary said it was not obvious to her that acting as the dispersing agent requires the Los Alamos County Finance Department to question an expense report that was approved by the RCLC director and the board treasurer or another officer.

She added, “I don’t know if any Los Alamos elected and appointed personnel accepted gifts that were in conflict with our travel or ethics policies. None of us on the outside of this situation do.”

“In conclusion I would like to present my personal view of the situation. The first has to do with possible misconduct of any individuals. If errors of judgement were made, it would be best to impartially document them, acknowledge them and improve going forward. That part is straightforward. The more complicated issue has to do with public trust and the trust of those of us on the Council who are not kept informed,” O’Leary said.

She said if there was an attempt to cover up the situation, the Council needs to know about it.

“If there are failure points in the County Council’s communication process, we need to fix them. Each member of the Council has equal authority and responsibility in a situation like this. It is unacceptable for some members of the Council to withhold this kind of information from the entire Council and the public, and it is especially unacceptable to withhold information while trying to make a problem go away,” she said.

O’Leary added that this kind of situation weakens the County Council. It distracts from doing work that benefits the community, she said.

“We need to be transparent with the public about what we’ve learned from this situation and how we’re fixing it, so that the public can trust that when the County Council approves funding for organizations like the RCLC, their tax dollars have been spent appropriately,” she said. “Since it was formed, we have invested hundreds of thousands of Los Alamos County taxpayer dollars in the RCLC and there must be accountability. All those factors support a review that is independent of the Council and County management with full disclosure of the facts to the public, whatever they might be.”

Chandler asked O’Leary if she felt there was a problem, why she did not contact the Councilors or bring it up at a public meeting herself.

O’Leary said when she read in the newspaper about the concerns regarding the RCLC, she read through recent emails from Councilor Chandler and Deputy County Manager Steven Lynne about the RCLC and there was no mention of the seriousness of the financial irregularities. During last week's Council meeting, after the story became public, no one involved with the RCLC mentioned anything about the issue and she felt there needed to be more information and an independent investigation was a good way to get that information. She added she didn’t need to justify her request for an investigation.

Councilor Rick Reiss pointed out that despite the issues with the RCLC, the organization is valuable and has done great work for the region. He pointed out the RCLC has worked on Senate Bill-17, which would ensure the Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to pay gross receipt tax if it becomes a nonprofit. Additionally, RCLC helped secure the clean up work at the laboratory.

“There’s been a lot of progress come out of RCLC,” Reiss said.

The issues with the RCLC travel policy are complex, Reiss added. “This is a complex and confusing process. We have eight or nine  jurisdictions that have eight or nine travel policies…” he said. The complexity of the problem doesn’t excuse it and if the Council does not conduct an investigation it does look like it is hiding something, Reiss said.

Although he was in favor of looking further into the complaints outlined by O’Leary and Chrobocinski, Reiss said he didn’t want the investigation to be incredibly lengthy or expensive. Reiss also wondered who would be subject to the investigation and how far back it would go.

O’Leary felt the investigation should go all the way back to the RCLC’s inception seven years ago and include everyone involved in it.  

Members of the public offered strong words to the Council.

Lisa Shin said she was “very disappointed” in the lack of transparency and accountability. She applauded O’Leary and Chrobocinski’s efforts for an investigation and urged Council to comply.

Brady Burke said, “There is a lot of distancing from this issue, when all parties are responsible. Blaming the RCLC for the lack of defined process or business structure states volumes as to the upfront legwork that should have been done to ascertain that this was a stable and well managed organization. The County Council is responsible to the voters for all dollars that it dispenses through the County. We are entitled to a detailed accounting of County dollars, regardless of services purchased. We should expect accountability. We should expect transparency.”

Mike Wheeler encouraged the Council to preserve the RCLC, pointing out the good works it has done such as bring in millions of dollars to ensure environmental cleanup.

County Manager Harry Burgess gave his own presentation on the matter. Burgess said around October, Deputy Manager Lynne, who is delegated to assist Councilors on the Coalition, came to him to tell him there were some questions about the Coalition reimbursements and that they were looking into it.

Burgess said around Feb. 1, Lynne came to him and explained more specifically there were complaints about how the reimbursements had been made and requested the County conduct an internal review of utilizing the County’s Finance Department personnel to determine what the extent of any such differences in what might have been allowed under policy versus what was actually paid.

“At that time he requested to be taken out of the situation. He didn’t want to influence it in any way. He did write an email to the Regional Coalition board in which he took full responsibility for what happened. We hadn’t done any review at that time,” Burgess said. He added the next day, Lynne forwarded the email to all Council members to let everyone know what was going on.

In the ensuing couple of weeks, Burgess said he worked with the Finance Department staff to review the information that was available. He said after the first week he got a preliminary idea of where the review was going and around the same time there was a Coalition meeting where he talked about the initial findings. He said he sent out information to the Coalition prior to a scheduled March 1 meeting.

“I can do nothing but apologize, I did not send out information to the rest of the Council at that time, however this was a third party independent group, albeit one we belong to. It was inconclusive other than our audit what direction things were going in and we waited for that meeting to figure out what they intended to do. Prior to that, however, the media got a hold of the story … and it was about a lot more than this audit here, which was a minor part of that story,” he said.

“Since that time, the Coalition has met as late as this morning and they are still proceeding with what they intend to do with this audit,” Burgess said.

Editor’s note: Maire O’Neill contributed to this story.

Scene from the County Council Special Session Monday evening as Councilor Rick Reiss, left, discusses the request for an independent ethics investigation related to issues with the RCLC. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Council Chair David Izraelevitz is shown on the monitor in the lobby of the Municipal Building during the special session underway Monday night in Council Chambers. Chairs are set up in the lobby to accomodate overflow from the chambers, however, that was not the case at the Monday night meeting. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com


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