As a top official in one of New Mexico's largest agencies, Bradley McGrath is one of the highest-profile state employees.
He's also one of the best paid, raking in $115,000 a year as chief deputy secretary at the Department of Health—more than even Gov. Susana Martinez makes in a year. But for McGrath, that's just the beginning.
Records obtained by SFR show that from December 2011 through March 2013, McGrath has been charging taxpayers for his weekly meals, travel and lodging on a regular basis.
McGrath's expenses during that period add up to more than $30,000. Most are per diem payments for weekly trips from his home in Roswell to Santa Fe. Although McGrath checked a box certifying that his travel expenses were "nonroutine," he requested per diem payments for 55 of the 67 weeks included in SFR's request, or more than 80 percent of the time. And since per diem payments are paid regardless of how much a state employee actually spends, it's unclear how much money actually paid for McGrath's travel—and how much, if any, he was able to pocket for himself.
In an email to SFR, DOH spokesman Kenny Vigil explains that McGrath is actually doing two jobs: chief deputy secretary and chief facilities officer. Vigil describes the arrangement as a "cost effective and an operationally efficient solution." If both positions were filled by different people, Vigil writes, "DOH would have paid out a total of $219,000."
But to Bruce Trigg, a former regional medical director for DOH's sexually transmitted disease program, McGrath's lucrative per diem payments present a "clear case of corruption," especially in an agency that bars much simpler perks like employee flex time.
"This seems to be an example of two sets of rules," Trigg writes in an email to SFR.
McGrath's high salary and per diem payments are the exception in a state government that's been struggling to compete with the private sector. Last year's State Personnel Office's annual compensation report describes a public sector "critically behind the market," unable to keep salaries on par with inflation.
Miles Conway, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18, which represents state employees (including roughly one-quarter of DOH's), says state workers are leaving their jobs for better pay in the private sector.
"The big concern is retention and turnover," Conway tells SFR.
He adds that several AFSCME-represented state employees commute to Santa Fe from places like Albuquerque on their own dime, and have to make the tough choice of relocating their families when offered jobs in other parts of the state.
"That's a choice Mr. McGrath should have made a long time ago," he says.
McGrath has worked for state government at least since October 2011. As DOH's chief facilities officer, he oversaw seven major state-run health facilities—including the embattled Sequoyah Adolescent Treatment Center [news, Oct. 30, 2012: "Something's Rotten"]. He was appointed deputy cabinet secretary last May and served as the department's interim cabinet secretary from October 2012 until January 2013, when he returned to his deputy secretary position.
New Mexico's per diem statute allows payments of up to $135 per day for overnight travel to "in-state special areas." McGrath used this rate for his weekly stays in Santa Fe (the city is listed as a "special area designation" in state statute).
A typical week shows McGrath leaving Roswell at 8 am Monday morning and billing the state $135 for the first four nights of the work week. In his per diem requests, McGrath sometimes wrote a short description of his work—"meet with cabinet secretary," for instance, or "meet with HR concerning investigation." On Fridays, he often took a "partial per diem"—usually $20, which state statute allows "on the last day of travel when overnight lodging is no longer required."
Evan Blackstone, chief of staff for State Auditor Hector Balderas, says his office is currently reviewing McGrath's per diem payments.
"We are concerned about whether these payments complied with state law and regulations," Blackstone tells SFR.
Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, wonders whether they're just the "tip of the iceberg."
"How many other state employees are doing this, and what are the total costs to New Mexico?" she writes in an email to SFR. "Why isn't someone who is working 80 percent of the time in Santa Fe not required to move to Santa Fe?"
Although they're public documents, McGrath's travel records were difficult to obtain. After receiving SFR's public-records request, interim Records Custodian Teresa Padilla extended DOH's response deadline for a total of two months, citing a clause allowing extra time for "broad and burdensome" requests.
"It shouldn't be this hard to access this kind of information," Gwyneth Doland, then-executive director for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said last week.
DOH provided the records only after SFR obtained some of them from a source who requested anonymity. Vigil attributes the delay partly to SFR's filing the request during the legislative session, "which is a very hectic time." (SFR submitted the request on March 15, the day before the session ended.) He says McGrath continues to receive per diem when he travels to Santa Fe, but that DOH may reevaluate the arrangement.
Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says a fear of disclosing wasteful public spending can sometimes delay public-records responses.
"It's one of those practices that is, unfortunately, embedded in a lot of access of public records," Mackey tells SFR. "It undercuts the Legislature's intent of creating a transparent and open government."
View McGrath's per diem expenses below:
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