December 10, 2020

NM auditor finds ‘red flags’ in MLK Jr. Commission finances

A state commission that is tasked with promoting the values of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continually failed to rectify financial improprieties and inconsistencies, according to the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor. 

State Auditor Brian Colón sent a letter on Monday to New Mexico Martin Luther King Jr. Commission Executive Director Leonard Waites and commission members with concerns about how the commission has handled its internal financial affairs. Colón wrote that since 2016, when Waites became executive director, Colón’s office has found “numerous findings of material weaknesses and material non-compliance” in the commission’s audit reports and that the issues were not resolved and persisted in the following years. 

“Within the fiscal year 2015 and 2016 audits, the Commission’s response to each finding presented included, ‘This occurred under previous management and the current Executive Director has put procedures in place that should resolve this finding during the fiscal year 2017 audit,’” Colón wrote. “Executive Director Waites has been in the Executive Director position since August 2016, and the issues remain the same.”

In an interview with NM Political Report, Colón said his office found “red flags” in the commission’s audit reports that include purchase orders made after the date of corresponding invoices and invoices that were not properly documented. 

“These are really, really red flags,” Colón said. “ And they’re not necessarily red flags for embezzlement, but they’re red flags for failure of paying attention to the financial order of the house.”

Waites did not respond to a request for comment, but he told the Albuquerque Journal that he was surprised by Colón’s claims

Colón said the commission spends roughly a quarter of a million dollars of money allocated by the state annually, but that the issue is more than a dollar amount. 

“Before you talk about that number, though, you have to talk about a principled approach to oversight,” Colón said. “And for me, it’s not the size of the transaction, it’s not the size of the agency. It’s that every single taxpayer dollar matters. And then you have the overlay of an organization that’s charged with celebrating, preserving and promoting an incredible leader in an underserved and underrepresented part of our community here in New Mexico.”

Colón said the optics of his letter are not lost on him either. 

“I understand the gravity of publicly being critical of an organization whose mission is to serve an underserved and underrepresented community. I understand the seriousness and the gravity of that,” he said. “And I don’t want to do anything to damage the long-term success for the commission. But I think in order for the long term success of the commission to really come to reality, we’ve got to hold each other accountable. When people don’t have faith and trust that this commission and its executive director are being good stewards with the resources they have, they put future resources at risk.”

As Colón mentioned in his letter, this is not the first time the commission has faced scrutiny from state officials. In 2016, the commission was the target of an investigation by the state’s Attorney General’s office. The commission’s former executive director was quickly fired by the commission and later convicted of fraud and sentenced to unsupervised probation.  

The commission is also facing a lawsuit filed by Waites’ former associate director, Erica Davis- Crump, alleging that the commission is illegally withholding financial documents. Davis-Crump filed a second lawsuit against the commission alleging that Waites sexually harassed her and later retaliated against her when she tried to bring attention to the issue. 

In a response, Waites’ attorneys said the allegations of sexual harassment are untrue. 

Colón declined to comment on the two pending lawsuits against Waites and the commission. 

Waites and the commission have until Dec. 21 to respond to Colón’s letter. Without giving specifics, Colón said if he doesn’t get a substantive response from Waites by the deadline, he’ll continue to push for answers. 

“Frankly, the African-American community deserves better leadership,” Colón said. “And so for me, the next steps are really taking an aggressive public stand on applying pressure on the commission to really give us some answers.”