New Mexico Auditor Proposes to Conduct More Fraud Investigations

January 18, 2007

New Mexico Auditor Hector Balderas wants to send a message to the public and would-be whistleblowers in state and local government: alert his office to potential fraud, corruption or mismanagement.

Balderas, a lawyer and former legislator from Wagon Mound, has served as auditor for just under two weeks but has big plans for the office.

“We want to definitely develop our investigative capacity,” Balderas said Thursday in an interview.

He plans to ask the Legislature for a substantial budget increase –about $600,000 — to hire 10 to 13 additional workers, mostly auditors and investigators.

He also proposes to establish a hot line, which would allow people to call with tips of potential waste, fraud or abuse in governmental operations.

The auditor has an operating budget of about $3 million this year. The office is authorized to have 31 full-time employees, although there are a number of vacant positions Balderas is trying to fill.

The goal, he said, is to improve the accountability of government to ensure that taxpayer money is spent properly and efficiently.

“Our argument to the Legislature and the state of New Mexico is this has to be part of the ethics reform movement,” Balderas said of his proposal to beef up the auditor’s office.

Gov. Bill Richardson is asking the Legislature to consider a package of ethics measures, including limits on campaign contributions and gifts to public officials and creation of an independent ethics commission.

By law, the auditor must conduct a financial audit of every state and local governmental body each year — everything from a state agency to school districts, colleges and cities.

The office also can perform special audits to look into allegations of fraud or the failure to comply with laws and regulations. Balderas plans to expand those operations.

“Currently we have 270 pending allegations or open case files internally that we are assessing whether it’s necessary to have a special audit or not,” said Balderas. “It’s not 270 alleged criminal activities, but the cases all … address fraud, mismanagement or potential abuse.”

He contends there should be a greater emphasis on auditing and accountability measures in all government agencies and offices. He recommends a “1 percent concept,” in which that share of overall spending — potentially more than $50 million based on the current $5.1 billion budget — be devoted to auditing, investigating and performance controls of government operations.

Balderas said a kickback scandal in the state treasurer’s office illustrates the need to improve government’s ability to investigate allegations of fraud and coordinate the auditing work with prosecutors. He hopes to work out formal agreements with district attorneys and the attorney general on procedures for referring cases for possible criminal prosecution and for ensuring those don’t fall into a bureaucratic black hole.

When he campaigned last year, Balderas said, many people questioned why the auditor, attorney general or some other state governmental agency didn’t detect wrongdoing and prosecute former treasurers Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil. The corruption was exposed because of a federal investigation.

Vigil was convicted of one count of extortion last year, and Montoya pleaded guilty to one count of extortion as part of an agreement in which he cooperated with federal prosecutors in their case against Vigil.

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