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Balloon Payments

More high-level state workers collect lavish per diem payouts

June 11, 2013, 12:00 am

When SFR reported last month that a top state employee got taxpayers to pay him an extra $30,000 for his work commute—on top of his $115,000 salary—a key watchdog group wondered if it was just the tip of the iceberg.

“How many other state employees are doing this, and what are the total costs to New Mexico?” Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, asked at the time.

The answer? At least two, and the costs are significant. Despite Gov. Susana Martinez’ promises to cut waste and shrink the size of state government, SFR has learned that two more high-level state employees enjoy perks including unusually high salaries and lucrative travel payments. (When SFR reached Martinez on the phone, she referred questions to her spokesman, Enrique Knell. Knell didn’t respond to SFR’s questions by press time.)

Harrison’s concerns centered on Bradley McGrath, the chief deputy secretary and chief facilities officer for the New Mexico Department of Health. Over a 15-month period, McGrath billed taxpayers for expenses he incurred while commuting from his home in Roswell to DOH headquarters in Santa Fe [news, May 14: “Hidden Fees”].

Critics like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents nearly one-quarter of DOH employees, noted that many lower-level state employees commute daily from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on their own dime.

DOH argued that even though McGrath spent 80 percent of his work time in Santa Fe, his base remains in Roswell. It also claimed that since McGrath has two job titles, his salary and per diem payments are more “cost effective” than paying for two full-time employees—even though records of McGrath’s per diem payments suggest a typical workweek.

But records reveal that two more DOH staffers enjoy similar perks.

Last year, Richard Adams replaced Erin Bouquin as chief medical officer shortly after she resigned. Between April 2012 and May 2013, Adams, who lives in Ruidoso, spent 70 percent of his workdays commuting to other cities and charging the state for his meals and lodging, according to his per diem requests. Adams collected more than $21,000 in per diem payments, on top of his $170,000 salary.

Since her hiring in September 2012, DOH Chief Nursing Officer Gayle Nash has also spent most of her time commuting from her work base in Las Cruces. She’s raked in $12,500 in per diem on top of a $132,000 salary.

Both Adams and Nash commuted mostly to Santa Fe, where state statute allows a higher per diem compensation than usual because of its “special area” designation ($135 a night, as compared to $85 elsewhere). In addition, both of their salaries are roughly $30,000 higher than the position midpoints—the average salary for a given position.

Typical per diem sheets show Adams and Nash leaving their hometowns on Monday mornings and driving to Santa Fe to “meet with Cabinet Secretary.” In many cases, they stayed in Santa Fe for additional days and simply marked “overnight,” with no explanation as to why they stayed. Nash even charged per diem in Santa Fe on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day last year. And because per diem are flat payments, it’s unclear how much of the money paid for these employees’ actual expenses, and how much (if any) they pocketed for themselves.

As it did with McGrath, DOH argues that because Adams and Nash have additional job titles (Adams is also the Medical Cannabis Program’s medical director, and Nash is also the interim director of health improvement) paying them per diem actually saves taxpayers money—$220,000, according to DOH spokesman Kenny Vigil.

Vigil tells SFR that Nash’s job “requires extensive travel to the seven DOH health facilities across the state” and that Adams’ work base will change to Santa Fe starting June 17.   

Still, McGrath, Adams and Nash pulled in a total of $64,000 in travel payments alone—a stark contrast to the average state employee salary of $35,000, according to online listings.

Evan Blackstone, the chief of staff for State Auditor Hector Balderas, says his office is “alarmed” by DOH higher-ups “spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for frequent hotel costs in Santa Fe.”

“These officials are responsible for the proper use of public funds and should be held to the highest standards,” Blackstone writes in an email. “Our office will direct independent auditors to closely review these transactions and the officials’ justifications for their repeated requests for reimbursements.” 

Read Richard Adams' and Gayle Nash's per diem payments below:

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