On Monday, I joined Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing for an episode of the Tipping Point New Mexico podcast. We talked about the latest developments involving Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America. Topics include:
aborted SpaceShipTwo flight test of Dec. 12
reasons for 22-month delay in powered flights
new Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier’s extravagant vision for the space tourism company
why Virgin Galactic hasn’t been able to deliver on promises made to New Mexico taxpayers
shakeup in the management at the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, and
recent audit that recommended former Spaceport America Executive Director Dan Hicks and ex-CFO Zach DeGregorio be invested for possible criminal charges.
SIERRA COUNTY, NM, December 7, 2020 (NMSA PR) — The New Mexico Spaceport Authority has started preparations ahead of Virgin Galactic’s first powered spaceflight from Spaceport America. The flight window will open on December 11, pending good weather conditions and technical readiness.
Fresh off a stinging report saying that it failed to properly oversee a state-owned facility rife with fraud, waste and abuse, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) Board of Directors approved spending up to $20 million on capital improvements to Spaceport America.
Outside investigation concluded former Executive Director Dan Hicks ignored spending regulations, submitted falsified travel documents, and wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on unnecessary travel and unrealistic projects
Hicks portrayed by staff as an incompetent manager who bullied employees
Ex-CFO Zach DeGregorio facilitated Hicks’ violations by improperly approving travel and ignoring rules and statutes
Former New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board Chairman Rick Holdridge accused of allowing violations to continue
by Douglas Messier Managing Editor
A highly critical investigation of Spaceport America has determined the New Mexico state government should consider formal criminal and/or administrative charges against former Executive Director Dan Hicks and former Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Zach DeGregorio for their mishandling of the spaceport’s finances.
“As detailed above, there is evidence to conclude that Dan Hicks violated criminal and administrative statutes, as well as the State of New Mexico Governmental Compliance Act, and Governor Lujan Grisham’s Code of Conduct, during his tenure as Director of the Spaceport,” the report said.
The New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) has terminated Spaceport America Executive Director and CEO Dan Hicks four months after he was placed on administrative leave amid an investigation into alleged financial mismanagement and abuse of authority.
The Las Cruces Sun-Newsreports the board voted 5-1 to remove Hicks after discussing his status in closed session for about an hour. Board members did not comment on the reason for the dismissal.
Hicks, who was hired in 2016, was placed on leave in June after former CFO Zach De Gregorio submitted a complaint that alleged the spaceport CEO had created a toxic work environment and removed adequate internal controls on the expenditure of funds.
Some of the allegations against suspended Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks are of a criminal nature, a New Mexico official has revealed. The Sante Fe New Mexican reports:
A wide range of allegations against Hicks are being looked into, including possible violations of the state procurement code, potential financial mismanagement such as improper spending, alleged disbursement of gross receipts tax revenue for unauthorized purposes and possible conflict of interest, Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia Keyes said.
“After the investigators initially came on and did some interviews, they informed us this is a potential criminal violation,” the secretary, who is also chairwoman of the spaceport’s board, told lawmakers at a Legislative Finance Committee meeting held virtually and in person in Red River.
Hicks, who has headed the spaceport since 2016, was placed on administrative leave in June when former Chief Financial Officer Zach De Gregorio submitted a complaint accusing Hicks of pressuring him to ignore procedures that provide accountability for the spending of public money.
Two separate investigations are underway into the charges and the spaceport’s finances.
The Santa Fe New Mexicanreports that State Auditor Brian Colón is investigating the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), and the state Economic Development Department has hired an outside accounting firm to perform an independent forensic audit of the organization that runs Spaceport America.
The investigations followed claims by NMSA’s former chief financial officer that CEO Dan Hicks had pressured him to ignore accounting procedures. Hicks is currently on administrative leave pending the outcome of the inquiries.
Colón said Monday he couldn’t release the complaint that prompted him to open the investigation, but said he began the inquiry in June, one day after former Chief Financial Officer Zach De Gregorio resigned, citing frustration with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board’s response to his whistleblower complaint about CEO Dan Hicks’ alleged attempts to get him and others to circumvent accounting protocols.
“Daniel Hicks has shown gross mismanagement and abuse of authority,” De Gregorio wrote in his complaint. “He has consistently applied pressure to the CFO and the accounting staff to bend the rules. This pressure has reached the point where I feel like my ethical ability to act as a check and balance for financial decisions in the Agency is compromised. This has created a toxic environment where there is no longer adequate internal controls at the NM Spaceport Authority, which could lead to fraud.”
De Gregorio also accused Hicks of attempting to block and interfere with his communications with state Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia Keyes and the Spaceport board.
“Daniel Hicks often talks about that it is his money and his authority and he should be able to do what he wants,” DeGregorio wrote in his complaint. “Zach De Gregorio reminds him that it is the State of New Mexico’s money and the board’s authority and the Agency has to follow the process.”
The newspaper also reports that former NMSA employee Karen Barker has filed a complaint saying Hicks had created a toxic work environment and retaliated against her after she complained she was being paid less male counterparts.
McLaughlin, an Albuquerque native and New Mexico State University alumnus who began working for the spaceport in 2019, introduced himself at a meeting of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s board of directors Friday morning. The meeting was conducted via video conference.
Melissa Force, who briefly stepped in as interim director, continues to serve as the spaceport’s full-time general counsel.
Hicks, the spaceport’s CEO since 2016, is on administrative leave pending an investigation into a complaint by the spaceport’s former chief financial officer, Zach De Gregorio.
The complaint, submitted in June, accuses Hicks of undermining internal accounting controls and interfering with communications between De Gregorio and state Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes, who chairs the NMSA board.
Keyes said a report should be available for the board’s review in two to three weeks.
The Las Cruces Sun Newsreports that Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks, who has led the organization since 2016, has been placed on administrative leave.
New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes, who chairs the New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s board of directors, confirmed Thursday that Hicks was on leave pending an investigation, but did not provide further details.
Hicks did not immediately respond to a query from the Sun-News.
He succeeded Christine Anderson, who served as the spaceport’s CEO from 2011 until her retirement.
Previously, Hicks served for 34 years at White Sands Missile Range, ultimately assisting WSMR’s commanding general and its executive director. The Las Cruces native graduated from Las Cruces High School, earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from New Mexico State University and received an honorary selection to NMSU’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Academy.
LAS CRUCES, NM (New Mexico Spaceport Authority PR) — HAPSMobile Inc., a subsidiary of Japan’s telecommunications operator SoftBank Corp. (TOKYO: 9434) has chosen New Mexico’s Spaceport America for test operations and development of a specialized communications platform designed to provide internet connectivity to hard-to-reach places around the globe, Economic Development Cabinet Secretary Alicia J. Keyes announced today.
SANTA FE, N.M. (NM Economic Development Department PR) – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has appointed three new members to the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and re-appointed four other members, Cabinet Secretary Alicia J. Keyes announced today.
Officials from New Mexico, the federal government and Virgin Galactic met last week behind closed doors for the state’s first Space Valley Summit to form a “collaboratory” to promote Spaceport America and the state’s aerospace economy.
The one group not invited: taxpayers who have forked over about $250 million to build the spaceport where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. As the Las Cruces Sun News dryly noted
Minutes after [Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham] exhorted the summit to “make sure every New Mexican … knows exactly what is happening here,” all reporters were asked to leave.
NMPolitics.net and its publisher, Heath Haussamen, have settled a lawsuit against the secretive New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) that runs Spaceport America. The authority agreed to release a group of fully unredacted leases of tenants at the spaceport and to pay the website $60,000.
Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.
The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.