NM VFD audit report details missing fire truck, stolen records, $335K in suspect purchases
State Auditor Brian Colón turned over his findings to the New Mexico State Police and called the situation "a complete breakdown in the system"
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
SANTA FE, N.M. — Fake invoices, stolen records, a firetruck gone missing and thousands of public dollars paid to family members for little to no work.
Those are just some of the findings against the Mora County Volunteer Fire Department issued by the state Auditor's Office on Wednesday. The 86-page report details years of alleged fiscal misappropriations by county officials, which could eventually result in future arrests.
In total, investigators found an estimated $335,000 in unsubstantiated purchases and numerous violations committed by employees of the county, including potential embezzlement and fraud.
Many of the allegations revolve around the department's former chief, Dennis Romero, and his daughter, Denise Duran, who served as the county's payroll and payments clerk. The report says that each of them used their positions to benefit themselves, as well as members of their extended family.
For example, Duran used county money to purchase clothing for herself, spent $18,000 on boots that were never included in any inventory, inflated hours for family members who worked for the county and didn't submit tax forms for family members receiving county money, the report says.
She also gave herself a firefighter's salary — double her normal wage — despite never working as one.
When contacted by a Journal reporter by phone Wednesday, Duran hung up. Romero could not be reached for comment.
However, according to the state auditor's report, Romero admitted allowing family members to claim 20 hours of work, despite working only one, and allegedly received kickbacks from propane purchases.
Many family members were employed by the department, sometimes receiving full salaries, but there's little evidence some of them actually worked, the report says. On top of that, thousands of dollars was spend on landscaping and new floors the county never received.
And all of this lasted for years.
"It appears a particular family and group of friends dishonestly benefited from the county's taxpayers' public funds," the report says.
State Auditor Brian Colón told the Journal the findings have been turned over to New Mexico State Police and local prosecutors for further investigation.
"At the end of the day, it all just adds up to a complete breakdown in the system," Colón said. "People who were placed in supervisory positions failed to do their job."
County Attorney Michael Aragon originally brought the issues to the attention of the state after his office completed an initial investigation in 2019. He said it resulted in several people being terminated from their jobs at Mora County, including Romero.
While the state auditor's report echoed many of Aragon's initial findings, it found potentially new ones, as well.
That includes a firetruck valued at $81,000 that was purchased by the county and which investigators say disappeared several years ago. Colón said it was potentially auctioned off, but there's no record of any sale — he added that the entire investigation was difficult because so few records existed.
"My forensic auditor cannot find the money for that truck anywhere," Colón said, adding that the truck also wasn't properly procured by the county.
It's unclear how many records have vanished. Aragon said the county temporarily closed the fire department in 2019 to take inventory and found file cabinets broken into and records inside missing.
Even less clear is the impact on day-to-day operations of Mora's fire department and the possible effect on residents. Colón said $335,000 goes a long way in a place like Mora County, a rural community of 4,000 people north of Las Vegas, New Mexico.
"It's even more offensive because these funds were specifically allocated to provide public safety and protection," he said. "It's just heartbreaking."
Aragon said the county has instituted more rigorous oversight measures to prevent more fraud in the future.
New Mexico State Police issued a statement saying that investigations are ongoing. Fourth Judicial District Attorney Richard Flores said his office is waiting for the results of that investigation before filing any charges.
(c)2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)