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State auditor says $15K flight was a ‘waste of taxpayer funds’

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

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham also made the trip last October speaking 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, Auditor Joseph Maestas stated that during an investigation, Environment Department management appears to have abused their authority by upgrading their airplane seats which the auditor called significant and excessive.

Economy class would have cost roughly $2,000 but the secretary flew business class at nearly $15,000 per seat. The total was nearly $30,000 just in flights for Kenney and his coworker. That’s a 600% increase in costs to the department which the auditor said appears to be a clear case of waste of public resources and violates state policy.

New Mexico Senator William Sharer said the prices is outrageous, especially coming from this department. “Especially because Sec. Kenney is always coming before the Finance Committee and pleading poverty. His department is underfunded and if we don’t give him more money he’s going to have to close offices, which negatively affects the economy. Yet here we are spending this money,” said Sen. Sharer (R-San Juan.)

Secretary Kenney wouldn’t do an interview on Thursday but did send a statement:

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) upgraded to business class for extended international air travel to allow for a full and productive workday upon arrival. This was essential for effective participation in the Asia Pacific Hydrogen Summit where the Governor and NMED secured and announced a $100M investment in Albuquerque by Australian-based Star Scientific. The NMED acknowledges the need for stronger internal controls and the Department 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 Environment Department

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