Spending in Mora questioned

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By David Giuliani

Leather jackets aren’t just for bikers.

In Mora County, school board members and state lawmakers are wearing them, too. It’s courtesy of funds managed by the Mora school district.

Last month, the Optic issued a public records request for all documents related to spending for the leather jackets and all other expenses involving state lawmakers during the legislative session from January to March.

Not long after, two top district officials, Agnes Padilla and Roger Gonzales, were placed on paid leave. Both said Superintendent Dora Romero made that decision in reaction to the Optic’s records request.

Romero said she has referred the matter to the state Public Education Department’s inspector general and the state auditor’s office for an investigation. She said the investigation will determine whether the purchases were “proper and legitimate.”

“Until such audit is complete, it would be inappropriate for me to make any further comments on this matter,” Romero said in an e-mailed statement.  

Besides the leather jackets, the schools forked over nearly $750 to the Bull Ring in Santa Fe for a dinner with legislators and the district’s brass. Thirteen people attended.

Also, the schools spent more than $2,000 for snacks for legislators, a quarter of which was for bags of jerky. 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.

In early 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 receipt for the Feb. 13 dinner at Bull Ring included steaks as high as $41.

Both Agnes Padilla, the district’s finance director, and Roger Gonzales, its director of institutional support and advancement, argued that the expenses were allowed because they came from the administration’s activities account. They said the account includes donations from banks and others, but they couldn’t provide a list of the donors.

Romero wouldn’t say whether that was the case.

On Feb. 29, Padilla and Gonzales said Romero met with them at the end of the day and handed them each a letter announcing that they were being placed on paid leave. The letters referred to “alleged misconduct.”

Both contended the Optic’s request prompted Romero’s decision, even though the superintendent approved the expenses.

“I think she (Romero) totally panicked. I said, ‘If we need to, I will talk to (the Optic). I will let the paper know what took place,’” Padilla said.

She said the fund in question didn’t involve student activities and that it had been building up with donations over the years. Spending the money on advocating for the district’s needs was one of the purposes for the account, she said.

“I don’t know what (Dora Ro-mero’s) particular concerns are with these expenditures. The school board approved them. When the Optic’s request came through, she became concerned,” said Gonzales, who acts as the district’s lobbyist during legislative sessions. “These were legitimate, allowable expenditures. I’m sure after this investigation is done, I will be vindicated.”

District records show that some people refused the leather jackets. For instance, the superintendent’s secretary, Katherine Valdez, was listed as having accepted and then refused a jacket. Valdez said she turned it back in after the Optic’s records request came through.

Also listed as refusing were board members Joseph Griego, Arthur Romero and George Trujillo.

Griego, who was elected in March and is now the board’s chairman, said he didn’t feel right accepting the jacket so soon after taking office because the jackets were considered tokens of appreciation. He said he may have accepted one if he had been on the board for some time.

Griego said the board, however, may change the purpose of the administration’s activities account to help students with their fundraisers, so they don’t have to spend so much time selling things such as candy.

As for the Bull Ring dinner, Griego said it was appropriate because participants talked about such things as infrastructure, transportation and funding.

Rep. Garcia, who represents much of Mora County, said he accepted the gifts in good faith. He praised the Mora district for being transparent in how it is spending its money.

“You assume they are complying with the rules and regulations of the state,” he said.

But Garcia said he wouldn’t have accepted a leather jacket at the beginning of the session, before he had been able to do anything for his constituents yet. Near the end of a session, which is when he received the jacket, he sees gifts as tokens of gratitude for his service.