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SPECIAL REPORT: Audit slams Mora school district; official says district addressing problems

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By David Giuliani

The state auditor found on Tuesday that the Mora school district didn't follow procedures in spending thousands of dollars in public funds on leather jackets, snacks and dinners for area state lawmakers and other top officials.

 Click here to view the audit in PDF format.

The state auditor found on Tuesday that the Mora school district didn't follow procedures in spending thousands of dollars in public funds on leather jackets, snacks and dinners for area state lawmakers and other top officials.

The district improperly diverted $64,000 in funds to a discretionary account, according to a special audit by State Auditor Hector Balderas.

 

His audit states that the district may have violated the state constitution, which bars public money from going toward private causes.

 

In a report released Tuesday, the auditor said he is referring the matter to state and federal investigators. At issue is a discretionary general administration account.

 

In April, the Optic issued a public records request for the account in question. Shortly after, Mora Superintendent Dora Romero asked State Auditor Hector Balderas to investigate. Two school officials were then placed on leave.

 

Over the last four years, the account recorded $69,000 in revenue for the account. All but about $5,000 of that money was improperly diverted into the account, the auditor found.

 

The report indicates the district diverted more than $40,000 in federal information technology funds to the administration account. Such money was supposed to be kept in a separate account for that purpose, according to the audit.

 

Also, $3,500 in federal funds for Head Start was improperly deposited into that account, the audit found.

 

“I think it’s poor practice to take dedicated tax dollars to (a discretionary) account. This practice could easily lead to abuse and questionable purchases, which is exactly what happened,” Balderas said.

 

Because of the diversion of federal funds, Balderas said his office is referring the matter to the investigative arm of the U.S. Education Department.

 

The audit also found that $367 collected from a fundraiser for the victims of Hurricane Katrina was deposited into the account but never went to the intended beneficiaries.

 

Based on the public records request earlier this year, the Optic found that the district spent more than $2,000 from the account for snacks for state legislators, a quarter of which was for beef jerky. And the district forked over nearly $750 to the Bull Ring in Santa Fe for a dinner with legislators and the district’s brass; 13 people attended. The receipt for the meal included steaks as high as $41.

 

In March, the district spent $2,400 on leather jackets for legislators, school board members and other employees in the central office — $500 of which went for four lawmakers’ jackets. The jackets ranged in price from $70 to $210.

 

The audit determined that a fourth version of a purchase order for the leather jackets was altered. As such, Balderas said the matter is being referred to District Attorney Richard Flores for possible prosecution. According to the report, the fourth purchase order switched the fund source from transportation to the general administration account.

 

“Original purchase orders should never be altered,” Balderas said.

 

Six of the eight purchase orders involving the legislators were never signed off on by Romero, the superintendent, the audit found.

 

The lawmakers who received most of the benefits were Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose; Rep. Thomas Garcia, D-Ocaté; Rep. Andrew Barreras, D-Tome; and Rep. Richard Vigil, D-Ribera.

 

After the Optic’s records request, Romero placed Agnes Padilla, the district’s finance director, and Roger Gonzales, its director of institutional support and advancement, on paid leave for "alleged misconduct." After being on leave for a few works, they returned to work.

 

Padilla and Gonzales have argued that the expenses were allowed because they came from the general administration account. They also said the account includes donations from banks and others. But a look at the revenue sources in the audit didn't indicate any bank donations.

 

Gonzales said Tuesday that at the previous night's school board member, officials agreed that they should follow Balderas' recommendations for more financial internal controls. He said the district has placed the $40,000 for information technology improvements and the $3,500 for Head Start into separate accounts.

 

He said the district is cutting a check for the Katrina victims, adding that he wasn't sure why that wasn't done in the first place.

 

Earlier this year, Gonzales called the gifts for the legislators "legitimate, allowable expenditures." In Tuesday's interview, he acknowledged the reaction has been mixed in Mora about whether the expenses were appropriate.

 

"We are moving forward," he said.

 

Romero didn’t return a message for immediate comment.

 

District Attorney Richard Flores said Wednesday that Balderas has informed him about the case.

 

“After I read the report and I believe there is criminal wrongdoing (regardless of who it is), I will file those charges myself or refer to somebody if there is a conflict (of interest),” Flores said in a statement.

 

Flores’ secretary, Cleo Gonzales, is the sister of Roger Gonzales. Cleo Gonzales used to work for the Mora school district.