Two key state officials spent most of Thursday accusing each other of incompetence over an audit that charges the scandal-ridden Public Regulation Commission is corrupt from top to bottom.
State Auditor Hector Balderas, a Democrat, set it off in the morning, calling on PRC chairman and Clovis native Patrick Lyons, a Republican, to resign over personal use of a truck in the PRC fleet.
“Chairman Lyons is part of the problem, and he should reimburse the taxpayers and resign his position,” Balderas said in a press release.
A few hours later, Lyons called Balderas “an incompetent attorney … showboating for the press” to bolster a run for the U.S. Senate.
Balderas is seeking the Democrat nomination for a seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman.
Lyons, a former state land commissioner, said he did nothing wrong and had no intention of resigning.
What set off the rhetoric was an audit by Balderas’ office that Lyons said he requested soon after taking office a year ago. It comes on the heels of former PRC Commissioner Jerome Block Jr.’s pleading guilty in September to felony charges of fraudulently using his state-issued gasoline card. Block agreed to pay nearly $8,000 in restitution, undergo drug treatment and never seek public office again.
As part of a plea deal, Block agreed to seek treatment for what he said was an addiction to pain pills. But the agreement was revoked and he awaits sentencing after being kicked out of the drug program.
Balderas said auditors found that Lyons drove a truck used by the PRC to and from his private ranch near Grady for 65 days. He said the Ford F-250 was part of a federal program administered by the PRC and Lyons violated federal regulations.
Lyons said the accusation was false and an exaggeration by Balderas.
Balderas’ audit also alleges other commissioners took state vehicles out of the state without authorization; dozens of PRC employees made $28,000 in prohibited purchases of premium gas since 2009; and the discovery of emails between a commissioner and an employee that appeared to reference drug deals.
One email from an unidentified commissioner makes reference to not being “able to get the cheese until tomorrow when I get my paycheck. … Can’t you lend me a small burrito until then.”
Balderas said the matter has been referred to criminal investigators.
Lyons said the truck he used was one of five purchased by the PRC for the federal pipeline safety program. Lyons said the PRC was supposed to be reimbursed for the trucks by the federal program, but it never happened.
“They were on our own books,” said Lyons. “We paid for them.”
Lyons said he is entitled to use a PRC vehicle to commute. He said a big part of his $90,000 a year job is travel within his district; thus the need for a state vehicle.
“I am entitled to drive it home,” said Lyons.
Lyons also said he told Balderas of Block’s misuse of the state credit card about two weeks of being elected to the PRC in January 2011.
“He (Balderas) knew it in January and chose not to do anything,” Lyons said. “He’s the one who should resign because of his own incompetence.”
Lyons accused Balderas of trying to cover up for Block by failing to audit the commission until after the allegations about Block were reported by the news media.
“That’s all Block stuff,” he said in reference to the audit. “ … That stuff was presented to him in 2011. He got caught not doing his job. He got caught trying to cover up another elected official.”
Balderas said auditors received tips that indicate “Commission employees are scared to come forward with information they may have. The tone of intimidation trickles down from the top.
“Meaningful reform can occur when the Commission’s leadership is not complicit in the misuse of taxpayers dollars,” said Balderas.
Balderas’ press release noted his office would refer violations of federal and state law to appropriate oversight agencies.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.