Legislative hopefuls named in Sunland audit
The special audit of Sunland Park released Monday includes findings related to Andrew Moralez and Joseph Cervantes. Both say they were trying to clean up the government in the scandal-plagued city.
The special audit state officials used to justify suspending two Sunland Park city officials on Monday includes findings related to two current candidates for seats in the N.M. Legislature.
Andrew Moralez and Joseph Cervantes both say they were trying to clean up the government in the scandal-plagued city.
Moralez, who was Sunland Park city manager for 10 months until he was fired by the city council in July 2011, is named several times in the state auditor’s report, which you can read here.
In announcing the suspensions of the city’s finance director and purchasing agent on Monday, DFA said others might also have been suspended, had they still been employed by the city, including two former city managers – one apparently being Moralez.
Moralez, a Democrat who is now seeking the open District 52 seat in the N.M. House, is cited in the report as having approved expenditures from a fund aimed at securing a new border crossing in Sunland Park “without proper supporting documentation.” He’s also named as failing to “request support for costs before approving payments” from the fund.
That fund has been at the center of controversy. The auditor’s testing of almost $1 million spent from it identified many problems, including fraud that’s already at the center of a criminal case against then-Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Salinas and others. In that criminal case, money from the fund was allegedly used to pay for alcohol, strippers and prostitutes for Salinas and others during a trip to a conference in Mexico.
Moralez wasn’t on that trip to Mexico and has not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing. And he was no friend to Salinas, who was instrumental in his firing.
The audit also states that Moralez failed to submit a complete city budget for fiscal year 2012 to DFA.
‘Anybody who walked into the mess I walked into…’
Moralez told NMPolitics.net no one in his position – trying to clean up a city so plagued by scandal and with a budget deficit of several hundred thousand dollars – would have been in the job for 10 months without making a mistake. It took time to learn who he could trust, he said.
In the meantime, expenditures were brought to him for approval that had already gone through a department head, the finance director and the head of purchasing, and his priority was delivering services to the city’s 14,000 residents.
“Anybody who walked into the mess I walked into, it’s going to happen,” Moralez said.
He cited one audit finding – procurement code violations related to a contract with Javier Ortiz to assist with the border crossing project – as evidence that he was standing up to corruption. The audit states that the contract with Ortiz lacks Moralez’s signature. Moralez said that’s because he refused to sign a contract he viewed as problematic and in violation of the law.
Once Moralez started challenging the status quo in Sunland Park, he claimed, his time as city manager was short. He says he asked DFA for help in December 2010 but was told the agency didn’t have the resources. He started his own, internal investigations into nepotism and problems with contracts in May and June of 2011.
“When I started asking all these questions and started these investigations, looking into stuff, then I wasn’t very popular,” Moralez said.
Turning to Cervantes for help
That’s about the time Moralez brought in Cervantes, an attorney, to help. Cervantes, a Democrat, is vacating his state House seat to run for the N.M. Senate seat that includes Sunland Park. Moralez is seeking to replace Cervantes in the House.
Moralez hired Cervantes as a city contractor in June 2011. The audit notes that the city paid Cervantes $150 per hour, which added up to $6,593 – a low enough amount that city council approval and competitive bidding were not required.
But the audit states this:
“We did not note any documentation that indicated that the City procured the services (from Cervantes) according to the ‘best obtainable price,’ which is required for this monetary amount.”
The audit doesn’t accuse the city of a procurement code violation in the hiring of Cervantes.
Moralez said he needed the help of an attorney with ethics and experience. Cervantes is the town attorney for Mesilla and has pushed reform legislation in Santa Fe.
‘No willingness to accept this legal advice’
When he hired Cervantes, Moralez was trying to get rid of the city’s longtime contract attorney, Frank Coppler of Santa Fe, and replace him with an in-house attorney who he said would be more accessible and accountable. Moralez terminated the city’s contract with Coppler in June or July 2011, then entered into the contract with Cervantes – an agreement Moralez said he intended to keep in place until he could hire a new lawyer as an employee.
It was not meant to be. The Albuquerque Journal reported that, at a chaotic council meeting on July 15, 2011, the city terminated contracts with Coppler and Cervantes and the council fired Moralez on a vote of 4-2.
Cervnates had advised the council that firing Moralez would violate the state Open Meetings Act because the public wasn’t given proper notice of that agenda item. Coppler disagreed and the council sided with him.
Coppler was later rehired and remains the city’s attorney to this day.
The Santa Fe attorney’s contract, the special audit states, violated the procurement code because the city didn’t seek bids for the contract. During the 2010-2012 fiscal years, the city paid Coppler $481,378.86 in legal fees.
Moralez said it was outrageous that a city with 14,000 residents was spending so much on an attorney.
“We had to pay $1,500 just for him to travel from Santa Fe and back,” he said.
Cervantes told NMPolitics.net that Moralez asked him to “come in and try to help Sunland Park government get out of an unlawful contract” with Coppler.
“It became immediately clear that there was no willingness to accept this legal advice, and the council rejected my efforts to have the city government comply with the Open Meetings Act,” he said.
NMPolitics.net e-mailed Coppler for comment but has not yet heard back.
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