WED: Audit Probes New Mexico Hospital That Was Overrun By Virus, + More

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Audit Probes New Mexico Hospital That Was Overrun By Virus - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A special audit of management contracts is raising concerns about weak financial controls, executive compensation excesses and potential profiteering at a county-owned hospital on the edge of the Navajo Reservation that became overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state auditor's office on Tuesday released results regarding Rehoboth McKinley Christian hospital in Gallup and its management and service contracts dating to 2016. 

State officials say the review shows that a contract with hospital management company Healthcare Integrity circumvented the hospital's code of conduct and conflicts of interest policy. 

The state auditor's office said the contract with Healthcare Integrity allowed the company to hire hospital executives as its employees, while requiring the hospital to pay their salaries, circumventing effective oversight.

Rehoboth hospital is supported in part by taxpayers through a property tax mil levy that provides about $2.5 million a year, giving the county fiduciary responsibility.

The audit says that compensation was established for CEO David Conejo without indication of approval by the hospital board of trustees. His annual pay of up to $645,000 may be in excess of norms for fair and reasonable compensation at a 60-bed facility.

Conejo could not immediately be reached for comment. In July, he filed a lawsuit alleging that he was wrongly blamed for consequences of the pandemic.

The hospital laid off nurses in March as a cost-saving measure only to be overwhelmed by a surge in coronavirus infections, eventually opting to transfer patients with severe respiratory problems to health care facilities in Albuquerque. Conejo has defended his handling of the pandemic and said decisions on staffing and medical care were not his alone.

Auditors said that compensation provisions for the hospital CEO and other top managers raises concerns about possible violations of IRS codes. The audit report was referred to the state attorney general's office, the state Taxation and Revenue Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

New Mexico Residents Asked To Aid Research On Bird Die-Off – Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

Researchers at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces have invited residents to share photos or written descriptions via their cellphones on a recent mass die-off of migratory birds in the state. 

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that Professor Martha Desmond said Monday that reports from around the state indicate migratory species are dying at unprecedented numbers. Further observations could place casualties in the hundreds of thousands, "if not millions," Desmond said.

Residents have reported birds dying in groups and living birds exhibiting lethargic and unusual behavior such as not eating, flying low or gathering on the ground. 

A mobile app through the Southwest Avian Mortality Project allows the public to contribute to the research. 

The New Mexico Wildlife Center in Espanola confirmed Monday that the state Department of Game and Fish would collect bird carcasses from their facility for laboratory analysis.

Desmond said the collected carcasses will be sent to a lab but results could take weeks.

She argued that the birds could be impacted by unseasonable cold weather and early snowfall but said southern New Mexico temperatures should not be cold enough to kill the animals. 

Audubon New Mexico Executive Director Jon Hayes also said there were likely overlapping factors in the die-off, but without necropsies they were guessing as to the cause.

Santa Fe Community College Sees Big Enrollment Drop - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Santa Fe Community College has seen the bottom fall out of its enrollment thanks to the novel coronavirus. 

The Albuquerque Journal reports enrollment at the college declined 28% in one year. Officials say the number of students fell from 5,337 students last year to 3,841 this semester. 

College President Becky Rowley says most of the reduction was due to the cancellation of fitness classes and a large reduction in art courses. 

In addition, many of the school's part-time students decided not to return. Part-time students make up about 80% of the college's total enrollment. 

College administrators had expected enrollment to plummet since the early days of COVID-19, even projecting a 30% drop in their yearly budget. 

New Mexico Education Officials Report 5 Coronavirus Cases - By Cedar Attanasio Ap/Report For America

The Public Education Department has begun reporting cases of COVID-19 linked to schools.

Five cases were reported Tuesday, including at least one student in Colfax County and one in Chavez County.

Two staff members tested positive, including one in Bernalillo County, and one in Santa Fe County where public schools are only holding classes online. 

The department did not specify if the fifth case, also in Santa Fe County, involved a staff member or a student. 

In-person learning began in some school districts for kindergarten through fifth grade one week ago, after their counties were deemed to have sufficiently small virus numbers. 

State officials started with younger children because they are at lower risk for the virus and have a harder time learning from home.

Around 50 New Mexico districts and charter schools are starting in a hybrid in-person and online structure, in which students come to school two days per week.

Many of the state's largest districts such as Albuquerque Public Schools, in Bernalillo County, plan on staying online only for virtually all students for the remainder of the year.

State Reports 82 New COVID-19 Cases And 7 More DeathsKUNM, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials announced 82 additional COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 26,923.

That includes another four cases in the Lea County Correctional Facility.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

There were also 7 more deaths, including a man in his 40s in Bernalillo County. The total number of deaths in New Mexico related to COVID-19 is 830.

People in their 20s account for the largest share of cases, followed by those in their 30s according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Hispanics and Latinos make up the largest share of cases at 45%, followed by Native Americans at 31% and whites at about 14%.

Water Shortages In US West Likelier Than Previously Thought - By Sam Metz Associated Press/Report For America

Models released by the U.S. government suggest a future with less water may arrive sooner than previously projected for the seven states that rely on the Colorado River. 

After a relatively dry summer, government scientists project Lake Powell and Lake Mead are 12% more likely to fall to critically low levels by 2025 than they projected in the spring. 

Climate change and prolonged drought have compelled some cities and farms to conserve water to secure the river long term, but it remains overtapped. 

The projections could complicate already-fraught negotiations between New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico over the river's future.

Ethics Complaint In House Race Won't Be Heard Before Nov. 3 - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

A Democratic candidate for New Mexico House says her Republican opponent broke the law by failing to disclose conflicts of interest in contracts between an educational nonprofit she founded and child welfare agencies. 

Karen Whitlock has filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission against Rep. Rebecca Dow. 

Dow says she has been transparent about working at a nonprofit that contracts with the two state agencies and that she doesn't have an ownership stake in the company. 

Members of New Mexico's Legislature, who don't earn a salary, regularly propose bills that may benefit the industries in which they work. But the state has laws against lawmakers acting in their interests instead of what's best for their constituents.

Ethics commission officials declined to comment on the complaint, citing a gag rule. The panel also can't issue a ruling on a complaint against a political candidate within 60 days of an election.

Ex-Los Alamos Employee Sentenced To Probation In China CaseAssociated Press

Federal officials say a former Los Alamos National Laboratory worker has been sentenced to five years of probation and fined $75,000 for making false statements about involvement with China.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for New Mexico said 68-year-old Turab Lookman of Santa Fe was sentenced Friday by a federal judge after pleading guilty in January.

The office said Lookman in 2018 denied to a counterintelligence officer that he had been recruited or applied for a job with a Chinese recruitment program involving foreign technology and intellectual property.

Lookman cannot leave New Mexico while on probation.