Monday, June 28, 2010

Task force to investigate (Santa Fe) county's mounting troubles

Allegations of fraud, threat related to paving contracts grows to include other possible criminal issues

Phaedra Haywood | The New Mexican
Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010 - 6/2

"The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office is assembling a task force to continue a months-long investigation into allegations of theft and fraud in the county's Public Works Department.

"This is something that is going to take some time," said Sheriff Greg Solano on Thursday. "The investigation has expanded since day one and continues to expand on a daily basis."

While the investigation originally focused on allegations of fraud and theft related to county paving contracts, Solano said the case has grown to include "numerous other possible procurement and billing violations that are criminal in nature."

The investigation has already resulted in one criminal charge for a zoning violation, and the string of events has resulted in one firing and contributed to a resignation in county government. The case has also led to more scrutiny of road projects and pending procurement reforms, and spotlighted conflict-of interest issues on the City Council. Evidence of possible violations of the state anti-donation clause have also arisen, implicating government employees and officials from county rank-and-file to the state speaker of the House.

Solano said three full-time sheriff's employees are being pulled from other cases to work on the case, and the task force will include staff from the offices of the district attorney and the state attorney general.

Solano may solicit help from Department of Transportation technicians to see if roads were built to specifications. He has also considered hiring an engineer to help with that analysis, but the cost of that has been estimated at $20,000, an amount that would trigger a procurement process that could take time to complete.

Solano said he couldn't estimate what the investigation might ultimately cost — but said the amount of money the public was defrauded in the case appears to be between $100,000 and $500,000.

Sparked by a whistle-blower

The investigation began April 22 after a county employee tipped off someone in management to suspected wrongdoing related to contracts for paving and other construction services. Officials referred the allegations to the sheriff, which led to the investigation.

It originally focused on whether one or more county contractors had defrauded taxpayers by not performing jobs to bid specifications and charging the county for use of its own materials and equipment.

Solano said investigators now have suspicions that contractors billed the county for work that was never performed. He said the process for deciding the amount of compensation on the contracts has also been called into question." More>>>>

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