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Report finds that former Spaceport America director violated state laws (report)

Virgin Galactic's Gateway to Space terminal for space tourists flights at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic's Gateway to Space terminal for space tourists flights at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

A report by New Mexico state officials found that the former executive director of Virgin Galactic's commercial launch site Spaceport America repeatedly broke state laws while working at the facility, according to a report from SpaceNews.

Dan Hicks served as executive director of the civilian spaceport (which is overseen by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority) for almost four years, additionally acting as operations base for the spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. A report from the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor, released on Nov. 24, showed evidence that Hicks violated a number of procurement laws, open meeting acts and other state policies, according to SpaceNews. 

The report, which states that Hicks ran the site in a "dysfunctional" manner, "details a severe breakdown of internal controls that resulted in possible waste and abuse of taxpayer funds," the office said in a statement about the violations, according to SpaceNews. 

Related: How Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo works (Infographic)

On June 12, the state government put Hicks on administrative leave after the spaceport's director of finance and administration, Zach DeGregorio, filed a complaint with state officials about Hicks' behavior. Later that month, DeGregorio resigned, and on Oct. 16 the New Mexico Spaceport Authority fired Hicks, SpaceNews reports. 

Following these events, state officials hired the private firm The McHard Group to investigate the situation and found evidence that both Hicks and DeGregorio violated state laws and policies, according to SpaceNews. These violations included improper contracting processes, filing false travel vouchers and more. 

The report also detailed issues with budget control and overspending, in the end concluding that "Dan Hicks violated criminal and administrative statues, as well as the State of New Mexico Governmental Compliance Act, and Governor [Michelle] Lujan Grisham's Code of Conduct, during his tenure as Director of the Spaceport," according to SpaceNews. 

The same report described Hicks as an "extremely dysfunctional manager" and "at times a forceful bully," SpaceNews reports. 

"The Economic Development Department, supported by the governor, moved quickly to investigate allegations of impropriety at the spaceport," said Alicia Keyes, the secretary of New Mexico's Economic Development Department, in a statement about the issues at the facility, according to SpaceNews. "It is now time to move forward and repair the breakdowns that allowed these abuses to happen."

Spaceport America's board, which Keyes chairs, will meet on Wednesday (Dec. 2). The spaceport has an interim executive director, Scott McLaughlin, who is the director of business development at the facility, but the board has not revealed a plan to choose an executive director to replace Hicks, SpaceNews reports. 

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.