Block’s gas card use investigated
In March, soon after Johnny Montoya began his new job as Chief of Staff for the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC), he ordered a quarterly report of all employees’ use of state issued gas cards.
Once the report was printed, Montoya said he noticed irregularities on Commissioner Jerome Block Jr’s statement.
He asked for a private meeting with the already embattled commissioner.
After showing him the records, Block offered to reimburse the state $193 for unexplained charges. He quickly returned to Montoya’s office with a money order and put the matter to rest, Montoya said.
But, Montoya kept watching the statements associated with Block’s card. After discovering additional irregularities, he said he notified commission Chair Pat Lyons and commissioners Ben Hall and Jason Marks by phone, since the three men were attending a conference. From Denver, they told Montoya to do what was needed to ensure taxpayer money was being used correctly.
Now a full-scale investigation into gas-card fraud is underway.
Veritas New Mexico has confirmed reports, posted by KOB TV, showing suspicious activity were forwarded to the Attorney General’s and State Auditor’s offices in mid-June.
Those records detail each charge on Block’s card. And, he racked up nearly $4,000 on fuel charges in the first five months of the year — twice as much as other commissioners.
It appears Block’s card was used to buy nearly $150 of gas at two gas stations in close proximity of each other in the span of two hours on the same day in May.
That could indicate multiple vehicles were being filled up on the one card.
One record shows a diesel purchase, but Block’s vehicle does not use that mixture.
Still, Block is denying any wrong doing and told KOB’s Gadi Schwartz, in this extended interview, that he would not “abuse state property or a position that people have entrusted me to do.”
In fact, Montoya says after he noticed suspicious activities on Block’s card the second time he cancelled the commissioner’s PIN number telling reporter Trip Jennings at the Santa Fe New Mexican:
The minute we noticed that there was anything that we felt was funny about his gas card report we immediately canceled his PIN number,” Montoya said. “And that was because I wasn’t sure if his card had been stolen, if his Social Security number had been stolen, if his PIN number had been stolen. I canceled his PIN number immediately.
But late Thursday night, Montoya told Veritas NM that Block never reported his card stolen to him or the PRC fleet manager.
Block said he believes other PRC gas cards were compromised, but no other employees’ records were referred to investigators.
Its unclear if investigators with the AG’s office have secured video surveillance tapes from the gas stations where the card was used that might show who was using the card and what vehicles were receiving the fuel.
With a new investigation underway at the PRC, Commissioner Marks says he’s concerned. He says if charges are filed it will harm voters confidence in government institutions and officials.
“We are accountable to the citizens,” Marks said. “We have to act with integrity at all times.”
Montoya confirmed this evening that Block’s SUV was searched this afternoon and State Auditor Hector Balderas said he has received the records, and his office will begin investigating the matter immediately.
“It will be a top priority for me,” Balderas told Veritas New Mexico. “Based on my auditors’ analysis of the information, I am very concerned that taxpayer resources may have been abused. I have directed immediate steps be taken to ensure that this matter is fully reviewed and audited.”
Despite the fact that Block is facing earlier felony charges he has been allowed to keep his seat on the PRC, and Montoya insists this investigation was not unfairly targeted at Block.
“I do a spot check on all the PRC employees who have the privlidge of using a state gas card, and it’s our goal to make sure no one is misusing that privlidge.”
Marks said commissioners do not have the power to removed Block from the commission.
Seven years ago, after then commissioner E. Shirley Baca was arrested on marijuana possession charges, commissioners were blocked by the courts for taking any action against her.
It’s unclear tonight if Block, who is denying the allegations, plans to take a leave of absence or resign in light of the new investigation.
Block’s prior felony charges stem from his alleged misuse of public campaign funds during his 2008 bid for his current PRC seat.