“Spacepork” nickname borne out in investigation into wrongdoing by former Spaceport director Dan Hicks

by Kathleen Sloan | November 24, 2020
4 min read
Hicks was terminated last month with justification, as documented in a 362-page forensic audit of Spaceport America's management under his leadership Photograph courtesy of Spaceport America

Spaceport America Director Dan Hicks, terminated last month without public explanation, was even untruthful about his title, according to a 362-page report, released today, on the forensic audit investigation conducted by The McHard Firm of Albuquerque into a whistleblower complaint accusing Hicks of mismanagement and abuse of authority. Hicks styled himself as CEO, but his actual title was director.

One of the more outrageous untruths uncovered by the three-month-long McHard investigation was Hicks’s claim that Vice President Michael Pence had appointed him to the Space Council. Hicks traveled to, but did not attend Space Council meetings, lacking the required security clearance to do so, the McHard report points out.

Worse, the report, written by Janet McHard, founding partner, and Beth Mohr, managing partner, documents “a severe breakdown of internal controls that resulted in possible waste and abuse of taxpayer funds,” according to the Government Accountability Office of the State Auditor, which released the report.

The Spaceport Authority board, under Rick Holdridge’s chairmanship from 2011 to May 2020, exerted no check over Hicks during his four-year tenure. Hicks took advantage of the lack of board oversight to engage in questionable management practices ranging from excessive travels and padding his expense account to improper procurement procedures and pursuing his own business development vision, which was often at odds with the Spaceport’s stated mission.

Hicks hired non-registered lobbyists to attract commercial orbital spaceflight companies to the Spaceport, the report states, although booster rockets used to launch such flights can only safely be dropped over the ocean. Nevertheless, Hicks “reported in an email that he was excited to meet the Lt. Governor of Colorado, because she would be key to determining where in Colorado the Spaceport would be allowed to drop booster rockets,” the report states.

Hicks, who worked for more than three decades in various staff capacities at the White Sands Missile Range, even “wanted the Spaceport to compete with his former employer” for federal defense contracts, although the Spaceport’s competitive advantages over WSMR were obvious only to Hicks.

Furthermore, Hick’s intended pursuit of military contracts contravenes Spaceport America’s specific intended purpose: to be a commercial spaceflight facility. 

Interviewed by The McHard Firm (as was Hicks and whistleblower Zach De Gregorio, the Spaceport’s former director of finance and administration), former Spaceport board chair Holdridge admitted he didn’t know board policy required board approval for purchases over $2,500, the report states. Holdridge thought Hicks’s purchase limit was $60,000. Holdridge reported to The McHard Firm that he, Hicks and De Gregorio would approve contracts and purchases over $60,000.

Holdridge also said he was unaware it was a violation of the Open Meetings Act for the board to conduct business by phone and email and not in public, shortcuts often taken “because the board only meets quarterly,” the McHard report states.

In some cases, Hicks and De Gregorio used Holdridge’s signature stamp to approve purchases, a use that should have been documented by an email from Holdridge that he approved the purchase and use of the stamp.  

Holdridge said Hicks “traveled half the time” and was “trying to run the Spaceport by telephone,” the McHard report states. Hicks approved his own travel—a procurement breach—and Hicks and De Gregorio backdated and falsified records to get Hicks reimbursed for travel expenses. McHard documents show $60,000 in unauthorized travel was reimbursed to Hicks, but “hundreds of thousands” in taxpayer dollars were probably expended for Hicks’s illicit travels.  

Hicks was placed on paid administrative leave June 12 after De Gregorio filed a whistleblower complaint with various officials.

De Gregorio resigned June 21, shortly after submitting his whistleblower complaint. The McHard report states that, although De Gregorio actions initiated the investigation, evidence showed that the finance director had “assisted and in some cases planned apparent violations of law and policy on behalf of Mr. Hicks.”

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham removed Rick Holdridge, a retired U.S. Air Force officer from Deming with a background in space technology, from the board immediately following the Oct. 16 meeting at which Hicks was terminated. The McHard report demonstrated Holdridge’s lax oversight contributed to “lack of financial controls” in operating the Spaceport.

The investigation that documented the improprieties and waste began at the Spaceport’s business offices on June 25, eight days after the New Mexico Economic Development Department contacted the Albuquerque forensic auditing firm on June 17. The formal contract hiring The McHard Firm was approved by the Spaceport Authority board in August.

EDD Cabinet Secretary Alicia Keyes joined the Spaceport Authority board in early 2019, as specified by statute, which also required Lieutenant Governor Howie Morales’ membership on the board. Keyes became Spaceport Authority chairperson in May 2020, according to EDD Public Information Officer Bruce Krasnow.

The McHard report ends with the recommendation that further investigation into Hick’s and De Gregorio’s actions be conducted by the “appropriate law enforcement agency.”

The report gives no estimate of how much money was misspent beyond “hundreds of thousands” for Hick’s travel.

The evidence reveals probable “violations of criminal and administrative statutes, the State of New Mexico Governmental Compliance Act and Governor Lujan Grisham’s Code of Conduct,” the report concludes.

In an EDD press release announcing the report’s findings, Keyes stated: “The Economic Development Department, supported by the Governor, moved quickly to investigate allegations of impropriety at the Spaceport. It is now time to move forward and repair the breakdowns that allowed these abuses to happen.”

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.


Spaceport America Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plan on hold for a year
by Kathleen Sloan | November 6, 2020

Although making no requests for state funding for capital projects in 2022, the Spaceport authority has prepared a wish list of future projects ranging from...

T or C is again promoting a second, northern Spaceport visitors’ center, but is Spaceport America?
by Kathleen Sloan | October 19, 2020

The Truth or Consequences City Commission passed a resolution expressing support for a spaceport visitors’ center located north, near Interstate 25, but the New Mexico...

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