World's first spaceport 'violated procurement laws'

9 December 2020

An audit has branded the ousted director of the US spaceport used by Virgin Galactic “dysfunctional” and “inept” and claimed he broke numerous procurement laws while in office.

The New Mexico Office of the State Auditor released a report looking at activities at Spaceport America, best known as the operations base for suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic.

The 362-page report was prompted by complaints about the behaviour of Dan Hicks, who was for nearly four years director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, described as the first commercial spaceport in the world.

Auditors found the state-owned space launch site repeatedly violated state procurement law and policies and made stinging criticisms of Hicks.

Hicks often selected contract winners without the approval of the spaceport’s board and was responsible for a “lack of controls” over the spaceport’s budget.

He was said to have often spoken of the organisation’s budget as “his money” to spend as he wished.

Witnesses told auditors he liked to tie up the spaceport’s whole budget in requests for proposal so he could then “move the money around and spend it how he liked”.

He then spent the money on what the audit described as unbudgeted travel and contracts of questionable purpose or deliverables of questionable value.

Auditors said they had been given the impression that when Hicks wanted a particular contract to be allocated it was up to the rest of staff to make it happen, regardless of the rules.

He saw the spaceport board, which was intended to provide control over the procurement process, as “needless” and sought to undermine its influence, auditors said.

In the spring of 2020 Hicks was on the point of approving over $1m worth of contracts himself but was stopped by the incoming chairman of the board.

Contracts, which were regarded with suspicion by the chairman, included one worth £250,000 to a photographer who was the only respondent to an RFP process.

The report also said Hicks sought greater control over the management of the spaceport’s budget than state law permitted.

Virgin Galactic as a result “became increasingly dissatisfied with Mr Hicks’ management” and complained to the governor’s office.

The board of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority fired Hicks in October and hired external auditors The McHard Group to investigate.

The report recommended that its findings be referred to the state attorney general for a formal criminal investigation.

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