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State auditor says $15,000 flight was a ‘waste of taxpayer money.’

SANTA FE, NM (KRQE) – When New Mexico Department of Environment Secretary James Kenney and his division director flew to Australia last fall, taxpayers paid $30,000 for just two flights. The state auditor sent Kenney a letter Thursday saying it was a waste of public resources and violated state rules.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham also made the trip last October and spoke at the Asia-Pacific Hydrogen Summit in Sydney. Australia announced a partnership with an Australian company to create an innovation hub in New Mexico.

In a letter to Kenney, accountant Joseph Maestas stated that Environmental Department management appears to have abused their authority during an investigation by upgrading their aircraft seats, which the accountant called significant and excessive.

Economy class would have cost about $2,000, but the secretary flew business class for almost $15,000 per seat. The total was almost $30,000 in flights alone for Kenney and his colleague. That’s a 600% increase in costs to the department, which the auditor said appears to be a clear case of waste of public funds and contrary to state policy.

Senator William Sharer of New Mexico said the prices are outrageous, especially coming from this department. “Especially because Sec. Kenney always comes before the finance committee and advocates poverty. His department is underfunded and if we don’t give him more money, he will have to close offices, which will negatively impact the economy. Yet we spend this money here,” said Sen. Sharer (R-San Juan.)

Minister Kenney would not do an interview on Thursday, but did send a statement:

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has upgraded to business class for longer international air travel, so you can have a full and productive work day upon arrival. This was essential for effective participation in the Asia Pacific Hydrogen Summit, where the Governor and NMED secured and announced a $100 million investment in Albuquerque by Australia-based Star Scientific. The NMED recognizes the need for stronger internal controls and the Ministry of Finance and Administration will replace its interim travel policy with a final travel policy for state employees next month.

Secretary James Kenney, New Mexico Department of Environment

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