State Auditor Tim Keller recently designated the City of Jal for a special audit on the city’s water billing issues. The move comes two months after Keller’s office opened a case into an arrangement where the city in the southeastern New Mexico oil patch gave a local ranch a discount on utility water worth $1.2 million over a 25-month period between 2012 and 2014. NM Political Report, in partnership with the Jal Record, first reported on the city’s water deal with the Beckham Ranch in September. Related: State Auditor to investigate Jal water deal
In a Dec. 2 letter to Jal Mayor Cheryl Chance*, Keller writes the special audit will look at Jal’s “compliance with applicable laws, regulations, policies and and procedures with respect to water utility billing practices.”
Jal City Manager Bob Gallagher told NM Political Report that he is “extremely pleased” with the state auditor’s decision for the special audit and said he has been cooperating with Keller’s office on the matter for the past two months.
Three state agencies expressed a lack of confidence Thursday in the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance’s (OSI) ability to collect millions of dollars back taxes owed to the state from health insurance companies. State Auditor Tim Keller, Department of Finance and Administration State Budget Division Director A.J. Forte and Legislative Finance Committee Deputy Director Charles Sallee all expressed doubts in OSI’s plans to collect an estimated $193 million that it failed to collect from premium health insurance taxes from 2010 through 2015. The comments came at an interim Legislative Finance Committee hearing. “I think it’s very notable there are three oversight agencies looking at this,” Forte told state lawmakers. “There are too many inconsistencies for me to feel comfortable in this process.”
The controversy began when Keller’s office revealed the uncollected revenue in a special audit earlier this year.
This story was reported in partnership with the Jal Record, a weekly newspaper based in southeastern New Mexico. JAL—Like many areas in New Mexico, water is in short supply in this southeastern oil patch town of 2,500 people. In the past few years, city officials have tried to address the matter by limiting water use, including barring businesses from buying city water for industrial use in the summer of 2013. But between 2012 and 2014, the city gave one ranch an unusual perk—a more than $1 million discount on its water bills. On top of this, Jal continued to sell industrial water to Beckham Ranch, Inc. for six months after the ban went into effect.
The state failed to collect nearly $200 million in taxes from health insurance companies during a recent five-year period, according to a report released Tuesday by State Auditor Tim Keller. The state Office of the Superintendent of Insurance (OSI) should have collected more than $193 million between April 2010 and April 2015, according to the report. OSI’s purpose is to collect premium taxes from insurers who do business in New Mexico. In the report, Keller noted that the $193 million total is based on a sample representing 26 percent of all premium taxes collected during the time period. In other words, OSI may have failed to collect more than that estimate.
State Auditor Tim Keller announced Monday his office found what appears to be embezzlement of nearly $20,000 in public funds meant to go toward paying people with disabilities for training classes. The Office of the State Auditor announced Monday in a press release that it found $18,225 in public funds went to the personal bank accounts belonging to the former program director of the Center for Self-Advocacy. The Center for Self-Advocacy is part of the New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Planning Council (DDPC), a public entity. Those with disabilities in the Center for Self-Advocacy program, called advocates, receive a $25 stipend to attend the training classes. The state auditor’s investigation found the “Program Director created false DDPC advocate invoices for classes not attended by the advocates.” These payments did not go to the advocates; instead, they went to the former program director’s bank account.
La Promesa Charter School in Albuquerque suspended an executive accused of fraudulently charging the school for personal services. The Albuquerque Journal first reported the news Tuesday night that the school suspended Analee Maestas, the executive director. Maestas also is the vice president of the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education and was silent until tonight on the allegations outlined by a report by State Auditor Tim Keller last week. Her only statement tonight, however, was to tell the Journal she took the allegations seriously and that she has an attorney. Maestas received reimbursement from the publicly-funded charter school for an air duct cleaning that appears to have been done on her home.
Attorneys for the Center on Law and Poverty are asking a federal court to unseal an internal state investigation into allegations of fraud in processing and falsely denying food benefits applications. In a motion filed today, the Center’s attorneys argued that the public’s “significant interest” in the matter outweighs the state’s arguments to keep the report on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications secret. “The Court’s actions in this case are of great public concern, as New Mexico has one of the highests rates of hunger in the United States,” the Center’s attorneys wrote. “The public this has an especially strong interest in having access to documents the Court uses to inform its decision affecting the class of food assistance applicants.”
The state Human Services Department was rocked in recent months after employees said they were instructed to add fake assets to emergency applications for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, so applicants wouldn’t be eligible for the emergency benefits. Applicants seeking emergency SNAP benefits must face extreme levels of poverty to qualify.
The governor’s office contends a taxpayer-funded account used to host dignitaries and throw parties isn’t subject to open records laws to the same extent other public funds are. Sometimes the subject of controversy, the account catapulted into public view last winter when one of the parties its money was used for ended with police responding to noise complaints from a possibly intoxicated Martinez. Each year, the state Legislature grants $70,000 in taxpayer money to the governor for a contingency fund, which per state law she can use for “purposes connected with obligations of the office.”
The fund is unusual in that, unlike most state government accounts filled with public money, the state Legislature exempts it from required annual audits. But after NM Political Report filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request with the governor’s office this spring for six years worth of expense documents associated with the contingency fund, the office only provided broad summaries of the expenses. Missing were documentation like the checks, purchase orders, reimbursements and purchase requests associated with the fund that we asked for.
State Auditor Tim Keller wants answers from the state Department of Health for delays in the processing of cards for medical cannabis program patients. In a letter to DOH Secretary-designate Lynn Gallagher sent yesterday, Keller writes that that his office will audit the department’s compliance with the legally-required 30-day waiting period for processing applications of new and returning medical cannabis patients. Patients are required to renew their cards every year. As NM Political Report and other news outlets have recently reported, thousands of patients are waiting as much as two or three times the required time period to receive their card, despite a state statute requiring the department to process applications in no longer than 30 days. Patients waiting in the limbo period aren’t legally allowed to buy cannabis, even if they were members of the program and have been prescribed cannabis by their doctors.
A national auditing organization reached out to Albuquerque Public Schools on Tuesday and asked the district to rethink the restructuring of the auditing department. David Jones, the city auditor of Seattle, penned the letter on behalf of the Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA) asking APS Board President David Peercy to keep the district’s current internal audit processes in place. Jones also serves as the ALGA’s advocacy committee chair. “We believe these changes significantly weaken the District’s audit functions and could limit the transparency of the District’s operations,” Jones wrote. APS is seeking to eliminate the independence of its auditors and shift those responsibilities to other areas of the district.