Seventh in an occasional series
The Chronicle has been interviewing candidates on their thinking about community colleges, specifically CNM, and how their ideas would translate into their jobs following the Nov. 6 general elections. This package offered candidates for New Mexico Auditor an opportunity to respond. Their responses are listed in the order of their positions on the ballot: Brian Colón, Democrat, and Wayne Johnson, Republican, the incumbent.
By Audrey Callaway Scherer
Colón: How CNM Will Help
Courtesy of Colón
Brian Colón wants to continue to fortify the Auditor’s Office beyond its use of subpoena power and obtaining transparency reports, by engaging the public now that they know the office exists, and he thinks that CNM’s new CFO training program will help the new auditor do better at the job as it raises the standard for financial officers, he said.
“What I think needs to happen with that office now, and I’m optimistic that this will be part of my legacy given the opportunity to serve, is that the majority of people now know that there is a state auditor, but what they don’t understand is what the state auditor does,” he said.
The job of the state auditor is to make sure that taxpayers and students aren’t being abused through misspent tax or tuition dollars, while maintaining an approach that doesn’t encompass waste, fraud, abuse, or corruption, he said. Auditors identify any of those issues and do a full investigation, and if fraud or corruption are confirmed, they work hand-in-hand with the state attorney general to continue the investigation and prosecute.
Essentially, independent public accountants who report to the auditor are looking for needles in a haystack of roughly 1,300 entities. He wants to go into communities to educate and engage taxpayers, showing them that if something doesn’t seem right, they should let the auditor know or can call the fraud hotline in the Auditor’s Office: 1-866-OSA-Fraud. This would allow his auditors to have more capacity and bandwidth to identify areas where there may be waste, fraud, abuse or potentially corruption, he said.
“Because then, you take me from a needle in the haystack with my auditors to actually saying, hey – there’s the bale of hay you need to be looking at,” he said.
In the primary and now in the general election, he has traveled to all 33 counties, and as auditor, he said he would to do it again to encourage people to talk to him with concerns or questions.
Because he is a community-minded, extroverted person who wants to increase the office’s effect and help it come into its full being, he said he thinks his personality is a good fit and that the timing is perfect.
No one really knew there was an auditor until about 12 years ago when New Mexicans elected the first attorney to the office who understood its subpoena power rather than just the financial audits, he said. This subpoena power was Hector Balderas’s legacy. Balderas served as auditor for eight years before becoming attorney general, he said.
Tim Keller, with his background in finance and public policy as a state senator, took the office to the next level. He created a fifth division called the Governmental Accountability Office, which for the first time got the office engaged in public policy conversations, and he introduced the collection of transparency reports from all 33 counties that could be presented to the Legislature and the governor if the auditor felt something should be done, he said. The best example is the rape-kit backlog – New Mexico has 5,400 on shelves in evidence labs waiting to be processed.
So, looking at the last 12 years in that office, auditors had a law background and then a finance background, and Colón said that he brings both. He added that he has been practicing law for 17 years, so he has the credentials to know what is important and not as important.
“For me, it’s a perfect alignment of an attorney general that clearly knows the value of a state Auditor’s Office and clearly understands that it should be a close working relationship,” he said. “I’m really excited about how the timing has all worked out in that regard.”
The first substantial cases of fraud and corruption were in education in northern New Mexico, he said. Most recently, Keller began an investigation of what was potentially inappropriate in the athletics department at UNM.
“I think now more than ever, we have a real understanding that with these very large institutions of higher learning – that are fee-based for students but are also highly subsidized by taxpayers – we have to always ensure that there are proper internal controls and that there is real clear oversight,” he said.
Smaller governmental entities have been bringing on less than highly qualified professionals, such as accountants and chief financial officers to manage their finances, because they don’t have robust enough budgets for experts, he said. This may not be caused by corruption or fraud but from sheer lack of bandwidth or capacity because of budget constraints.
CNM has rolled out a fantastic chief financial officer licensure program generally geared toward smaller entities that can’t afford paying $75,000 a year for an accountant, he said, and is trying to partner with the Municipal League and governmental entities to show them that it can help their financial officers meet minimum standards.
The Auditor’s Office is also trying to make sure that leadership that handles money has at least a basic understanding of financial transactions, particularly in smaller municipalities and government agencies, he said, and he thinks this is great.
When these small entities are hiring, they will be able to include people with less experience, because the certification ensures a strong understanding of financial transactions, internal controls, and security measures, so that things don’t fall through the cracks, he said.
In the next 10 to 20 years, he thinks CNM’s program will have increased the capacity of the workforce as places employ certified people who maybe don’t want to be accountants but want to get into public accounting at a level where they can be financial officers, he said.
“There is a great CNM piece to this that I think is going to help the auditor do a better job of protecting New Mexican citizens,” he said. There is an intersection between the auditor protecting students and taxpayers and CNM helping the auditor do a better job.
The Auditor’s Office is basically the one office that should be completely independent of the Governor’s Office, he said. The governor shouldn’t be able to appoint his or her own auditor, and the Auditor’s Office should be the last target of a budget cut.
He noted that in the last four years, the Auditor’s Office went from $3.8 million to about $3.3 million and change, reducing the budget by about 15 percent. There is also a 10 percent vacancy rate. It is one of his goals to hold the governor accountable, he said.
“How are you going to protect the taxpayers without a robust auditor?” he asked. “I’ve been very public in saying that, look, I’m going to hold the next governor accountable to appropriately fund that office, because its independence is required to protect New Mexico’s taxpayers, and in order to do that, we need to be appropriately staffed,” he said.
His political philosophy for this office is that job No. 1 is fighting corruption, waste, fraud and abuse, he said, but when he does that, he must always be mindful of if his work will generate trust between the citizens of New Mexico and their government.
“If it is, I’m doing a good job, and if it isn’t, I need to figure out what I’m doing wrong. And if I make a mistake, I’ve got to own up to it, just like I did ten years ago under the hot, hot cameras,” he said.
He said that his long history has not always been positive. He was chair of the Democratic Party during a very difficult time ten years ago and ended up on international television getting fileted, he said.
“But I stood there at the podium, and I took the heat, because I think that when you’re in a public position, that’s what you have to do, and that’s what I want to bring to the Auditor’s Office,” he said.
He feels that as an elected official, one has an obligation to make oneself available, to be transparent and to answer questions. That is why he is always excited to connect with the press, he said. Philosophy-wise, transparency also means access, and both are paramount to him.
“It’s critical to rebuild a damaged relationship between citizens and their government,” he said. “They deserve better!”
He is motivated by his thought that the Auditor’s Office is perfectly positioned to rebuild the trust between the electorate and the political landscape of New Mexico.
“Because they’re fed up!” he said.
He points to a convicted felon from each party, another person convicted of driving under the influence now under investigation for using her political position for leverage, and a secretary of Taxation and Revenue having her former clients treated favorably, he said.
“We wonder why taxpayers no longer have faith in government,” he said. “As state auditor, I’d get to try and restore that faith by holding people accountable who abuse their positions of authority.”
Part of why he is pursuing this opportunity to serve New Mexicans is his story, he said.
“I always tell people that in order to decide who you want to be as leaders, they have to understand the lens they look through,” he said. The lens we look through is the one that is created by life experience and the journeys leaders have been through.
He grew up like many New Mexicans – with a journey in poverty. With two disabled parents, he used every single form of government assistance possible, he said. Once his father passed when he was a teenager, he had no blood relatives left in New Mexico.
“Being an island to myself, all I had was my parents’ dream that I’d be the first in my family to go to college,” he said. He was able to go with the help of scholarships and everyone putting together patchwork to make sure he could pursue the dream, he said. But, even when he went, it wasn’t a straight line – it took him ten years to get his bachelor’s degree. Since he was an entrepreneur at heart, he did a little bit of everything to provide for himself and make it, he said. That included couch-surfing when things were really tough.
“I tell you that to help you understand what motivates me, because I come from a place of real deep gratitude,” he said. “The community raised me. I should have fallen through the cracks, but I didn’t. And a lot of people stood and helped me.” His gratitude is why he serves on many non-profit boards and is running for office, he said.
His wife, whom he met 23 years ago, helped get him focused like a laser beam, so that he could work full-time and go to school full-time, graduate, and then go to law school, he said. Their son is now 21 and is one generation out from that poverty on a presidential scholarship studying biomedical engineering.
“I always tell my son that our story should be the story for every New Mexican family,” he said. “And what drives me, I always tell Rafael, is that deep debt of gratitude to the community that I’m never going to be able to repay fully – but I’m going to die trying.”
He wants to make sure that other people don’t fall through the cracks and are also able to break the cycle the poverty, get an education or get trained for the workforce, he said. CNM does a phenomenal job of this, he noted.
“I think everything I’ve done up to this point has put me exactly where I need to be to do a good job by the citizens of New Mexico,” he said.
Johnson: Transparency, Experience
Courtesy of Johnson
His long track record of addressing transparency and his understanding of small governments are both part of the experience that he brings to the Auditor’s Office, where he has served since being appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez to the position in 2017, said Wayne Johnson.
The auditor is in charge of transparency for all levels of government – the Chief Transparency Officer, he said. Being an auditor is like being a reporter, because they gather facts and report them. The only difference is that the auditor can subpoena if the entity doesn’t want to give up the information. He noted that he has a background in the media and on television.
“My commitment to transparency is well established,” he said.
He has a reputation for uncovering waste, fraud and abuse, and in 2012, while serving on the Bernalillo County Commission, he wrote the toughest transparency ordinance and made it a standard model, he said.
For students, the No. 1 issue is when dollars are misappropriated for CNM – when it happens, it concerns all of us, he said.
His background and experience in government has led him to understand the challenges of small governments and most importantly how they work, he said – what they’re supposed to be doing and how to operate. He especially has experience in the transparency aspect of government and understands how relationships and written charters are supposed to work.
Even before he considered running for auditor, he has had a long track record of addressing transparency as county commissioner, he said. It’s part of his responsibility.
He said that in 2014 and 2015, the county treasurer was investing in financial instruments with significant interest risks to the point where a government equivalent of a payday loan was used for payroll. These investments may have been permissible in other instances, he said, but this person, as treasurer, had flipped the priorities to go for return over liquidity and security.
The treasurer is first supposed to make sure the money is there – security. Second is liquidity, so the money is there to pay the bills. Return is the third priority, he continued, but not as important as the other two.
He worked to dump the investments and create an internal compliance policy, he said.
He referenced a special audit his office conducted of the Village of Tijeras, in which it was found the village had made overpayments in pension reimbursements to public employees.
He said that there are a number of entities that have not been audited for compliance or financial stability, including little organizations created by other governments.