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Auditor alleges taxpayer funds wasted by Environment Department

By Faith Egbuonu

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    ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (KOAT) — State Auditor Joesph Maestas sent NMED a letter alleging Cabinet Secretary James Kenney and its division director “misspent or misused public funds” on a trip to Sydney, Australia, to attend the Asia Pacific Hydrogen Summit to take part in a public announcement by Star Scientific—an Australia-based hydrogen research and development company in October 2023. Star Scientific selected New Mexico as the location to open a U.S. campus.

The letter reads, “NMED inappropriately paid to upgrade their airline seating class from economy/coach to business class.”

It also states, “NMED management appears to have abused its authority by failing to consider the significant and excessive cost disparities when electing to upgrade the airfare seating class for much higher priced business class rate of $14,922.50 per seat. The resulting over 600% increase in costs to NMED, from an initial cost of $4,117.30 to a cost of $29.845.00, appears to be a clear case of waste of public resources.”

According to OSA, airline flights to Sydney, Australia, cost $2,058.65 per seat via economy class rates, the least expensive, as opposed to $14 922.50 per seat via business class rates.

According to OSA, airline flights to Sydney, Australia, cost $2,058.65 per seat via economy class rates, the least expensive, as opposed to $14 922.50 per seat via business class rates.

In response to OSA’s allegations, NMED management stated to OSA, “It was not feasible to travel to Sydney a day or two earlier via economy class due to scheduling and to accompany the governor, which resulted in not adhering to existing travel cost controls.”

However, OSA states the actual airline flight taken by the department secretary and division director, was at a different time, and on a different airline, than that utilized by the governor’s party and security.

In addition, “an extra day in a hotel to recover from the time difference, a day during which the Department Secretary and Division Director could attend meetings remotely or work online, could have saved NMED thousands of dollars.”

Recommendations from OSA to NMED

NMED take immediate and proactive steps to strengthen its internal controls, and update its relevant policies, regarding official travel outside the state by department employees, both within and without the continental United States. NMED include review and consideration of cost disparities and cost control measures as part of its travel approval processes, like those requirements necessary for any other expenditure of public funds for the purchase of goods or services, to address and limit any future waste of public funds by NMED.

New Mexico Environment Department Statement

“The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) upgraded to business class for extended international air travel to allow for a full and productive workday upon arrival. This was essential for effective participation in the Asia Pacific Hydrogen Summit, where the Governor and NMED secured and announced a $100M investment in Albuquerque by Australian-based Star Scientific. The NMED acknowledges the need for stronger internal controls, and the Department of Finance and Administration will replace its interim travel policy with a final travel policy for state employees next month.” — Jorge Armando Estrada, Public Relations Coordinator

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