4 On Your Side investigates private plane funded by the public

Posted at: 08/20/2013 10:36 PM
By: Chris Ramirez, KOB Eyewitness News 4



4 On Your Side has learned public dollars have been spent on the use of a private plane.

In the simmering controversy over New Mexico non-profits and alleged Medicaid fraud, Governor Susana Martinez has singled out Roque Garcia, the CEO of Southwest Counseling in Las Cruces.

An audit conducted by the State’s Human Services Department redflagged Garcia.  It showed Garcia is paid $107,000 annually, but he gets an additional $16,500 each year to put toward use of his plane.

“That is a lot of money for being a non-profit organization," Gov. Martinez told 4OYS during an interview.  

Southwest Counseling is one of 15 behavioral health companies in New Mexico accused of defrauding the state out of $35 million in Medicaid reimbursements by double-billing, overbilling, and giving their CEO’s excessive pay and benefits.  In Garcia’s case, 90 percent of his company’s funding comes from Medicaid.  

Garcia said the way the governor’s administration handled the audit and the allegations that followed is unprecedented in the country and unfair toward the mental health providers

"It’s unbelievable,” Garcia said.  “It's been a nightmare and it's so hard to believe."

Flight records pulled by 4OYS show the plane in question has flown to the Jersey Shore; Mexico; Las Vegas, Nev.; and all around New Mexico recently.

Garcia doesn’t apologize for using his single engine 4-seater.

“I was travelling too much from Las Cruces to Farmington to Santa Fe to everywhere else,” Garcia said.  “I was constantly traveling and because it was costing more to bill at a cost per mile, it became an agreement that I would get so much per month.”

Garcia said he believed it would cost less to fly his own plane to business meetings and return the same day.  The cost saved time and saved on hotel stays, Garcia said.  But the governor said there’s no real way to know if flying was a cost saving measure because Garcia never kept track of his travel, business or pleasure. 

"That's the problem when you give lump sums and you give no accountability back to the board,” Gov. Martinez said. “You don't have an itemized travel expenditure sheet that says I went, I traveled, and I spent this much for this one trip and this trip was related to my work associated with Southwest Counseling Center."

Garcia argued his compensation is on par with industry standards of a CEO of a mental health organization the size of Southwest Counseling.  Garcia said the real problem is how the governor’s administration contracted an out-of-state company to manage his organization and others while the state investigates the fraud claims.

"These Arizona Corporations administrators are being paid $300 an hour,” Garcia said.  “If you extend it out, that’s about $600,000 a year. That sounds very odd. You can give me all the grief about being a pilot, but the reality is where is that at that point?"

A contract reviewed by 4OYS shows that the top administrator for the contracted Arizona-based company does get paid $300 per hour.  But the governor disputes those calculations, stating the contract is short term and no one person will earn $600,000.

Attorney General Gary King’s office is investigating the fraud allegations.  Garcia told 4OYS that he wrote to King requesting his company be investigated first, because if he’s cleared he can resume control of the company again.  Garcia maintains there was nothing illegal about how he managed his company including using his plane.