Questa law firm contracts draws auditor's attention

Auditor digs into Questa's payments to law firm that employs opponent, requests subpoena

By Andrew Oxford
aoxford@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 9/21/18

The State Auditor's Office wants to subpoena documents from a Northern New Mexico village that has paid more than $1.5 million to a prominent Albuquerque law firm over the last decade under an …

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Questa law firm contracts draws auditor's attention

Auditor digs into Questa's payments to law firm that employs opponent, requests subpoena

Posted

The State Auditor's Office wants to subpoena documents from a Northern New Mexico village that has paid more than $1.5 million to a prominent Albuquerque law firm over the last decade under an agreement that it says violates the state's law on government contracts.

And in a political twist, that law firm employs State Auditor Wayne Johnson's election opponent.

Court filings show Johnson's office is raising anew years-old questions about Robles, Rael and Anaya's work for the village of Questa, which has prompted red flags in past financial audits.

But coming just two months before Johnson faces one of the firm's lawyers, Democrat Brian Colón, in the Nov. 6 election, the state auditor's request for subpoenas also has prompted complaints that he is using his office to dig up dirt on a political adversary.

Colón says he has never represented the village and divested from the firm when he unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2010. He is now of counsel, meaning he is not a shareholder.

Marcus J. Rael, Jr., one of the founders of the law firm which is also contracted to represent Taos County in some cases,  is from Questa.

On Thursday, Questa Mayor Mark Gallegos characterized the state auditor's request as a witch hunt.

"If Mr. Colón wasn't in the race, [Johnson] wouldn't care what's going on up in Questa," Gallegos said.

The mayor said he will turn over everything the State Auditor's Office seeks.

Colón said he had not yet seen the subpoenas or the auditor's court filings.

But in an interview Thursday, he said: "I'd be very disappointed to learn my opponent is on a fishing expedition for sheer political purposes."

Nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Taos, the village of nearly 2,000 people -- and its legal contracts -- have drawn scrutiny from previous state auditors.

Questa is no stranger to the State Auditor's Office. The village's audit from fiscal year 2011, for example, included a whopping 35 findings, including concerns that Robles, Rael and Anaya's contract with the village violated the state's procurement code.

The audit found the village paid $16,700 a month to its contract attorney for legal services. But the audit said that when analysts asked to see supporting documentation for those payments, village officials told them none existed. Instead, the village maintained many of the payments were part of an agreement set up under a previous mayor between the village, its attorney and Chevron, the owner of a nearby molybdenum mine that was the pillar of the community's economy.

Under that arrangement, the company would pay the village for legal services related to the mine and the village would serve as a sort of pass-through by paying the law firm.

"There was no evidence of a bid for attorney fees for the year even though the total attorney fees for the year exceeded $280,000," the audit said.

Subsequent audits continued to raise questions about payments to the firm.

The village paid more than $1.5 million to Robles, Rael and Anaya from fiscal years 2009-17, according to the State Auditor's Office. And it paid more than $400,000 during that time to an engineering firm under a contract that auditors also said appeared to violate the state's procurement code.

The results of third-party audits improved over the years.

On Aug. 17, Johnson sent Gallegos a letter noting the village had sought bids for legal services this year, suggesting Questa was getting closer to bringing its contracts into compliance with the state procurement code.

But Johnson also demanded a list of documents -- including contracts with Robles, Rael and Anaya dating back to 2009.

Johnson's office said the village has not turned over the records. As a result, the auditor is asking a judge to issue subpoenas for the documents.

"The State Auditor has a responsibility to verify that the Village has resolved the procurement issue that has been identified as a major problem in every single audit since 2011," Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the State Auditor's Office, said in an email Thursday.

Knell added the office is not aware of Colón ever doing any work for the village.

But the Taos News reported in 2012 that the village turned over its contracts with Robles, Rael and Anaya to then-Attorney General Gary King, who apparently was probing the same issue.

The past scrutiny of Questa's finances and its connections to the law firm where Colón works raised the question of whether he could -- if elected -- be an impartial watchdog over the village's government.

"Absolutely," Colón said. "... Political offices aren't supposed to be used for political gain."

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