After losing the Albuquerque mayoral race in 2017, Brian Colón decided to run for another office — State Auditor of New Mexico.
The former Democratic Party chairman is challenging state Rep. Bill McCamley for the Democratic nomination for the position. The winner will face incumbent Republican Wayne Johnson in the November election.
Johnson was appointed to the office by Gov. Susana Martinez in December 2017 to succeed former auditor, Timothy “Tim” Keller, who resigned when he won the position of Albuquerque mayor.
Johnson is the first Republican to hold the office since 1970.
The Office of State Auditor determines whether government entities are complying with legal and financial standards, performs audits, and investigates charges of corruption or fraud.
“If you don’t have the government serving the taxpayers correctly, whether it’s through waste fraud or abuse, it impacts the pocketbook,” Colón said. “So I would say this office is critical.”
Colón said that the profile of the office has risen in recent years, but his focus is public outreach to engage citizens, which he envisions doing by taking the office on the road.
“There’s a fraud hotline at the Office of the State Auditor, and most people don’t know that,” he said.
Colón has never previously held office before. He ran in the 2010 Governor’s race, tapped for lieutenant governor by gubernatorial candidate and former lieutenant governor, Diane Denish.
He recently ran in the 2017 race for Albuquerque mayor, in which he placed third.
Colón was born in New York, but moved to Valencia County when he was young. He said growing up in governmental housing and losing his father as a teenager were hardships that make the mission of the office highly personal.
“After my father died I didn’t have a single blood relative in New Mexico,” Colón said. “Those governmental programs meant my survival.”
Colón said that his background in law and finance qualifies him for the office. He received a Bachelor of Business Administration in finance in 1998 from New Mexico State University and graduated from the University of New Mexico’s law school in 2001.
Colón said the evolution of the office was due to his predecessors — now Attorney General Hector Balderas and Keller, the mayor of Albuquerque.
“Hector had a strong background in law, (Keller) had a strong background in public policy and finance and I have both,” Colón said. “I’m a finance guy who’s been practicing law for 17 years.”
Colón said the office has provided invaluable work in uncovering fraud and abuse, the most prominent example being over 5,400 sexual assault forensic exams that have gone untested. These exams, also called “rape kits,” contain DNA and other evidence collected in sexual assault investigations.
“It wasn’t really until Keller came in and did a transparency report on the rape kit backlog that policy leaders took action, and we finally had some movement in that — really what could be called a crisis when it comes to evidence,” Colón said.
New Mexico’s backlog of untested kits per capita was the worst in the nation, according to Keller’s audit in 2016. There are still 4,000 untested kits as of April.
In regards to UNM, Colón said it would be premature to speculate on what he might do if he wins office.
However, he offered his opinion. He said President Garnett Stokes’ new leadership is dedicated to transparency, and the University is a public institution that spends taxpayer money, and has to be held accountable if there is waste, fraud or abuse.
“I would want to finish the work that Auditor Keller started and keep open lines of communication, because there are a lot of issues — the President has stepped into a real firestorm,” Colón said. “The hits just keep coming. Obviously, it’s an institution that’s going to need some attention.”
The Office of the State Auditor has opened several audits into UNM, the most recent being the October 2017 audit of the Department of Athletics’ finances, finding 10 discrepancies.
“We know that the State Auditor’s office was one of the first to shine a light on some of the things that were going on at UNM, and that impacts (students’) daily lives,” Colón said.
Colón said that the Office of the State Auditor has been effective, but faces challenges, such as a $300,000 budget cut since 2016. He says the office has to continue to encourage outreach.
“While this office has uncovered millions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse, I have to tell you that unfortunately that may be the tip of the iceberg,” Colón said. “Unless we help engage New Mexicans in identifying these areas of concern we’re not going to be able to truly reform New Mexico government.”
Danielle Prokop is the multimedia editor for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@ProkopDani.