On Friday July 30, New Mexico House Majority Floor Leader Representative Sheryl Williams Stapleton abruptly resigned from the New Mexico House of Representatives ending a 27-year rise to power. Williams Stapleton stands accused of fraud, racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickbacks and violations of the state’s Governmental Conduct Act. Stapleton maintained in her financial disclosure forms filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State that her only income was from her job at APS.
The allegations involve a kickback scheme with an Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) vendor that was paid more than $5 million for over a decade . According to news reports, bank records show that businesses, including a restaurant, and charities Stapleton either owns or had close ties to received more than $950,000. She is also being investigated by the Justice Department on the monies she administered in federal grants to APS.
Links to related news coverage are here:
Stapleton retained respected New Mexico criminal Defense Attorney Ahmad Assad to represent her. Defense Attorney Assed had this to say in part in a statement:
“[My client is] … deeply troubled by the false allegations raised by the Superintendent of APS, and unequivocally denies them.
The investigation is in its very initial stages and no comment can be made as to any of the allegations; however, we are confident that the conclusion of the investigation will put them to rest.
Ms. Williams Stapleton is eager to cooperate in the investigation to clear her name of any wrongdoing. Despite the reckless manner in which some have portrayed the allegations against her, Ms. Williams Stapleton has not been charged with a crime at this juncture. She is presumed innocent under the law, particularly when no charges have been filed.
There is a high burden to present evidence to support proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the State must meet to overcome the presumption of her innocence.
Ms. Williams Stapleton adamantly maintains that innocence.”
On Saturday, July 31, Democratic legislators designated House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos as the “acting majority leader”, a position she’ll hold until the caucus holds an election in the coming weeks.
12 PLACED ON LEAVE
On August 2, it was reported that a dozen employees of the APS School system, including Williams Stapleton, have been placed on paid leave pending an internal investigation. The other 11 employees include administrators, teachers, and school and clerical staff. The 12 placed on paid leave with titles are:
1. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, director and coordinator of Career and Technical Education
2. Madelyn Serna-Marmol, associate superintendent of Equity, Instruction, Innovation and Support for APS
3. Amelia (Aimee) Milazzo, executive director of Curriculum and Instruction
4. Adolphus Washington, Sandia High School teacher
5. Scott McLeod, West Mesa High School teacher
6. Donald “Don” Gonzales, Eldorado High School teacher
7. Vivian Quintana, Van Buren Middle School teacher
8. Abigal Manzanares, specialist for Sheryl
9. Caia Brown, Harrison Middle School teacher
10. Ryan Palmer, Harrison Middle School teacher
11. Becky “Rebecca” Campbell, Harrison Middle School teacher
12. Curt Spencer, Harrison Middle School teacher
APS officials had previously said it is possible that more APS employees will be placed on leave as the investigation proceeds.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Although the political career of former New Mexico House Majority Floor Leader Representative Sheryl Williams Stapleton has come to a very abrupt and scandalous end within 4 days with her resignation, her ultimate fate is in the hands of the criminal justice system and it will take some time, likely upwards of a full year if not more. She did the right thing in resigning in that for now what is going on will die down somewhat during the news cycle and as the process unfolds. Political corruption cases involving fraud and abuse of taxpayer money are always complicated and even though involve paper trails, criminal intent is still hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and no one knows, at least for now, who or what she relied upon and what extent of authority she in fact had.
Then you have the uncomfortable fact that the alleged scheme went on for 10 years or more. No doubt the Albuquerque Public School System (APS), the Public Education Department (PED) and the State Auditor’s Office have been flat footed over the years for not catching the corruption sooner and the legislature will want to get to the bottom of what happened and how this could have been prevented. No doubt if this goes to a trial on the merits, the failure to act by APS, PED and the State Auditor’s Office will be made an issue by the defense attorney to create reasonable doubt and that she acted with the full knowledge or approval of these government agencies.
PENSION AT RISK
At this point in time former Representative Sheryl Williams Stapleton has not even been charged with any crime, but her political career and reputation are in total shambles. Until she is charged, she is free to go about her private business.
In 2012, the New Mexico Legislature passed a bill that allows judges to fine public officials convicted of felony corruption charges for as much as the official’s state pension and salary.
Williams Stapleton has accrued more than enough time to retire from APS as well as enough service to qualify for a legislative pension. You can expect that she will retire from the APS School system in very short order in an effort to protect her government pension. No doubt her pension will be used as a bargaining chip to secure her cooperation in the investigation and perhaps secure a plea agreement, such as plea to misdemeanor charges, no time served, restitution and she keeps her pension.
There is both a federal and state criminal investigations being conducted which means she faces defending herself on two fronts which no doubt will be costly and emotionally draining. In addition to the New Mexico Attorney General investigation, a federal grand jury has also issued subpoenas for APS records and the school system has placed others on administrative leave. It’s more likely than not others will be identified and charged.
Once both criminal investigations are complete, then and only then can charges be filed. Once charged, the long and very drawn-out process begins with arraignments, pretrial discovery and motions filed and ultimately a trial, unless of course a plea is negotiated. Until then, all who are charged are entitled to the presumption of innocence.
Government corruption does not respect party lines. Below in the postscript is a 40 year history of New Mexico Corruption including Democrats and Republicans alike.
As the saying goes:
“The wheels of justice turn slowly but grind fine.”
A SHORT HISTORY OF NEW MEXICO CORRUPTION
On August 1, 2021, the Albuquerque Journal did a story on a look back at other scandals in New Mexico history over the past 30 years. The article was entitled “New Mexico no stranger to scandal.” The link to the full story is here:
Quoting and editing portions of the story, following are the more notable New Mexico corruption scandals over the last 40 years:
“2021: Demesia Padilla, secretary of the Taxation and Revenue Department, was convicted by a Sandoval County jury of stealing $25,000 from a client of her accounting business while she served in the Cabinet of former Gov. Susana Martinez. She has requested a new trial. She faces up to 18 years in prison.
2018: State Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Juan, was sentenced to 18 months in state prison and fined $47,000 after he was convicted of five of eight charges relating to the sale of a state-owned building in Santa Fe and his failure to disclose his interest in the sale. The sale required legislative approval and Griego netted a $50,000 commission. He resigned from the Senate in 2015 after questions about the sale were raised. He also pleaded guilty to embezzlement of campaign funds in a separate case.
2015: Dianna Duran, a Republican, resigned as secretary of state after she was charged with diverting money from her campaign to pay gambling debts at Native American casinos. She was ordered to pay $28,000 restitution to campaign contributors and served 30 days in jail.
2013: Las Cruces District Judge Michael Murphy pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Governmental Conduct Act in exchange for prosecutors dropping four felony charges in a scandal that raised allegations of bribery. He received a 364-day suspended sentence.
2011: Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. pleaded guilty to a number of felonies involving identity and credit card theft and was sentenced to 60-day psychological evaluation.
2010: The business manager for the Jemez Mountain School District, Kathy Borrego, pleaded guilty to embezzling money from the school district for years. The State Auditor’s office said about $3.4 million had been embezzled to pay for Borrego’s gambling addiction. State police said she committed suicide just prior to being sentenced. Borrego faced up to 41 ½ years in prison and a fine of up to $54,000 for the crimes.
2009: The State Investment Council was racked by a pay-to-play scandal that involved a close confidant of Gov. Bill Richardson, Anthony Correra, and his son, Marc Correra. Firms seeking investments from the SIC and Educational Retirement Board paid intermediaries like Marc Correra in order to get state investments. No one was ever charged with a crime in New Mexico in connection with the scandal, but the State Investment Officer Gary Bland resigned and the Legislature revamped the make-up of the SIC. Dozens of lawsuits resulted in the state recovering more than $30 million in fees, but investment losses were measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
2008: Former Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and two counts of mail fraud in connection with receiving kickbacks in a scheme that defrauded the state of nearly $4.4 million in the construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse for which he sponsored legislative appropriations. He served nearly 4 ½ years in federal prison and was fined $750,000 and ordered to pay $649,000 in restitution along with other defendants in the case. He was released from prison in 2013 and now lives in Albuquerque.
2008: Joe Ruiz, deputy state insurance superintendent, was convicted on 30 public corruption charges for demanding charitable contributions from insurance companies, leading to a 48-month prison sentence and ordered to pay $103,000 in restitution [and $2,000 in special penalties].
Ruiz claimed he was just following orders from former Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna, who had stepped down in 2006 to head off an investigation by the Public Corporation Commission.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ruiz worked as deputy insurance superintendent from June 25, 2001 through July 31, 2006 under former insurance superintendent Eric Serna who retired in an agreement with the PRC after the agency had suspended him over conflict-of-interest issues, including some involving donations to a nonprofit health foundation, Con Alma, for which Ruiz solicited payments from insurance companies. The indictment also said Ruiz intervened in an insurance claim involving a state senator in July 2002. He allegedly brought pressure for a settlement by telling the company he would not take regulatory actions, including fines, if it agreed to make a $10,000 payment on the claim. It stemmed from an automobile accident involving the lawmaker, who was not identified in the indictment. The company paid a $10,000 settlement and it was not fined.]
Links to news coverage are here:
2006: State Treasurer Robert Vigil was convicted by a federal jury of one count of attempted extortion out of a 24-count indictment. He and former state Treasurer Michael Montoya were charged with giving bond brokers business in exchange for gifts. Vigil served 2 years and 2 months in federal prison.
2005: Former State Treasurer Michael Montoya pleaded guilty to a federal charge of extortion and a state charge of racketeering for receiving lavish gifts in exchange for business with the treasurer’s office. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and testified against his former political ally Robert Vigil.
1992: Then-State Rep. Ron Olguin, D-Albuquerque, was censured by the Legislature for solicitation of a bribe, but not he was not expelled. He was later convicted of soliciting a $15,000 bribe in exchange for getting the Legislature to provide $100,000 for a crime counseling program. He was sentenced to 18 months in state prison.
1986: John Ramming, an aide to then-Gov. Toney Anaya, was convicted of 13 counts of bribery, fraud, conspiracy and racketeering for directing almost $3 million in state disaster relief funds to a friend. Anaya issued Ramming a pardon on 12 of the 13 counts and he served a year in prison.
1985: Phillip Troutman, state investment officer, and Ken Johnson, deputy state treasurer, were convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion when they demanded a New York bank make a political contribution to get state investments. They were sentenced to two years in federal prison and each was fined $5,000.
1982: Herman Grace, director of the Governor’s Office of Community Affairs, was sentenced to 4 ½ years in federal prison when he pleaded guilty to embezzling $13,000 intended for an anti-poverty agency.”
The link to the full journal article quoted is here:
THOSE NOT MENTIONED, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
There are a few other very notable scandals and disgraced officials and politicians worth mentioning.
“THE DIRTY DOWNS DEAL”
During her first year in office, former two term Republican Governor “She Who Shall Not Be Named” was alleged to have been involved with a “play to play” controversy involving the award of a $1 Billion-dollar, 25-year, Albuquerque Downs Racetrack contract, dubbed by politicos as “The Dirty Downs deal”.
The FBI investigated the contract, which was awarded to the Downs at Albuquerque in December 2011. FBI agents interviewed people involved with the former Republican Governor’s campaign and others about the race track lease and about campaign donations and inaugural donations. The Republican Governor herself also answered FBI questions about the Downs lease deal but she never went public with what she said. Allegations were made that the Downs at Albuquerque contract was a “pay-to-play deal”.
Allegations of nefarious conduct around the Downs lease involved political insiders, significant campaign contributions to Martinez and attempts to hide political donations and contributions to Governor Martinez or her political action committee from donors connected to the Downs. Two of the Downs owners are Louisianans Bill Windham and John Turner are Republican boosters and were substantial contributors to the Republican Governor’s campaign for Governor and she received $70,000 in contributions during her campaign from Windham and Turner.
The Republican Governor’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey, who has never been a state employee but had an office next to Martinez, thrust himself right in the middle of the “Dirty Downs Deal” controversy and the award of the contract by the State Fair Commission. McCleskey became upset over a two-week delay on the contract award by the State Fair Commission. McCleskey became angry when the State Fair Commission did not approve the 25-year racino lease with the Downs at Albuquerque.
For several months, a federal grand jury investigated Jay McCleskey regarding expenditures from Republican Martinez’s campaign, as well as money from her 2011 inauguration committee that went directly to McCleskey. On March 4, 2016, Mc Clesky’s attorney announced that the federal grand jury would not indict McCleskey by saying “I’ve been informed the investigation has been terminated” and the attorney declined to answer any questions.
GUTTING NON-PROFIT MENTAL HEALTH CARE PROGRAMS WITH FALSE ALLEGATIONS
One of the cruelest acts of government corruption by former Republican Governor “She Who Shall Not Be Named” was when she ordered an “audit” of mental health services by nonprofits in New Mexico which devastated New Mexico’s behavioral health system. She did it by making deliberate and false allegations of “possible fraud.”
In June 2013, under the direction of the former Republican Governor, the Human Services Department cut off Medicaid funding to 15 behavioral health nonprofits operating in New Mexico. More than 160,000 New Mexicans at that time received behavioral health services in 2014, with most of those services funded by Medicaid, according to the Human Services Department. The Martinez Administration said that the outside audit showed more than $36 million in overbilling, as well as mismanagement and “possible fraud.”
The Martinez Human Services Department agency brought in 5 Arizona providers to take over. In early 2016, at least 13 of the 15 nonprofits that were shut down were exonerated of fraud after a complete criminal investigation by the New Mexico Attorney General. Even though found no fraud and cleared the nonprofits of fraud the damage had been done to the nonprofits and many just went out of business. At least 13 of mental none profits sued and were awarded damages.
Three of the five Arizona providers brought in by the former Republican Governor administration in 2013 to replace the New Mexico nonprofits pulled up stakes in the state and the mental health system as yet to fully recover.
METROPOLITAN COURT CONSTRUCTION SCANDAL
From 2004 to 2008, more than $4 million was stolen by state officials and contractors through fake invoices and inflated bids in the construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court building. In all, 8 people plead guilty in the federal case, including former state Senator Manny Aragon as already noted above. Four others are worth mentioning:
Ken Schultz once was a city councilor and then became Mayor of Albuquerque from 1985 to 1989. Schultz after losing his election for a second term as Mayor in 1989 became a lobbyist. Former Mayor Schultz will best be remembered as yet another disgraced former politician, a seedy lobbyist, a shadowy bagman, and a convicted federal felon. Shultz acted as a bagman for Senator Manny Aragon, Metropolitan Court Administrator Toby Martinez, and project architect Marc Schiff, and he did so repeatedly over the course of many months, contributing to the theft from New Mexico taxpayers of more than $900,000 in the architectural services portion of the Metro Court construction. When approached by the FBI and presented with irrefutable evidence of his involvement, Schultz confessed, plead guilty, and agreed to provide truthful testimony against his coconspirators. Schultz was sentence to probation for his crimes.
Former Metro Court administrator Toby Martinez plead guilty to mail fraud and conspiracy and sentence to 67 months in prison for his part in the Metropolitan Court Construction project and was ordered to pay more than $2.5 million in restitution. His wife, Sandra Martinez, plead guilty to charges that she knew her husband was committing crimes and did not report it and was sentenced to five years of probation. Sandra Martinez was also ordered to pay $106,000 in restitution.
Marc Schiff, the architect for the Metropolitan Court construction project played an integral role in the stealing of the $4.3 million in taxpayer money during construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse. Schiff, once the president of one of the top architect firms in the state, plead guilty to one felony count of conspiracy and one felony count of mail fraud. After admitting to submitting false invoices and then passing on the stolen money to other defendants, he voluntarily gave up his architect license in 2007. Schiff was sentenced to 366 days in prison and ordered to pay $136,000 in restitution.
Schiff stated in his plea agreement that the scheme began when Ken Schultz, his company’s lobbyist, wanted a cash bonus for securing the architect contract. As additional contracts were awarded, Schultz wanted additional cash bonuses. At some point, Schiff learned that Schultz was giving some of the cash to former Senate President Manny Aragon and former Metro Court Administrator Toby Martinez. Schiff said Martinez instructed him to submit false invoices, and “the proceeds were then used to pay kickbacks to Aragon and Martinez.” He said he personally gave some of the money to Manny Aragon consisting of two payments of $10,000 each, and was also present when Schultz passed Aragon an envelope containing $30,000 at an Albuquerque restaurant.
FORMER SUPERINTENDENT OF INSURANCE ERIC SERNA
Eric Serna is an attorney that practices insurance and corporate law. He was formerly the Chairman for the New Mexico Corporation Commission for 14 years and was the Superintendent of Insurance for 5 years. In 2001, the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) appointed Serna as Superintendent of Insurance.
On April 7, 2006, it was reported that Eric Serna was suspended as state Insurance Superintendent amid an Attorney General’s inquiry into the awarding of a lucrative state contract to a Santa Fe bank. Serna was placed on administrative leave with pay within hours after then Attorney General Patricia Madrid recommended his suspension in a letter to the Public Regulation Commission.
According to news reports at the time, the New Mexico Attorney General was looking into a contract Serna’s office awarded to Century Bank of Santa Fe, which is controlled by Santa Fe businessman Jerry Peters. The Albuquerque Journal reported on March 19 that Century Bank had contributed more than $124,000 to Serna’s Con Alma Health Foundation. The contributions started in 2003, the same year Century was awarded the contract by Serna and then-Treasurer Robert Vigil, who later was indicted for crimes. Serna and Vigil signed off on a no-bid extension of the contract, and an increase in the fees Century Bank was allowed to charge insurance companies.
It was in 2003 that Serna’s office decided to switch depository banks and sought competitive proposals. Four banks that responded including Century Bank which was chosen. The contract allowed Century Bank to collect up to 2% of the face value of the securities each insurance company deposited. A March 2005 amendment permitted the bank to collect an additional 0.05%, even though the state insurance code caps the fee at 2%.
After learning the increase was unlawful, the PRC took swift action to rescind the amendment. Century Bank agreed to make an estimated $200,000 in restitution to insurance company depositors. The PRC required that future contracts issued by PRC divisions be reviewed by in-house legal staff and the commission.
On March 21, 2006, the Public Regulation Commission asked the Attorney General to review issues involving the bank contract. That same day, Serna announced he would resign as president of the Con Alma board of trustees. Under the contract, Century collected upwards of $800,000 a year as the state’s depository for more than $400 million in securities and other assets that insurance companies are required to post in order to do business in New Mexico.
In October, 2005, a Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) review of the management practices in Serna’s office stated that, “Current practices may give the appearance of favoritism.” The LFC review focused in part on one contractor who had performed 87% of insurance company examinations. The LFC found that the contractor was paid more than the statutory guidelines.
On May 18, 2006, it was reported that Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna agreed to retire effective June 14 in a settlement approved by the Public Regulation Commission. Eric Serna ostensibly returned to the private practice of law practicing insurance and corporate law.
On September 8, 2019, it was reported that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Eric Serna as the Chairman of the New Mexico State Fair Commission.
Watching all these politicians over the last forty years always reminds me what my parents would tell me growing up:
“If you’re gonna be a thief, steal a million, because you’ll need a good lawyer to keep you out of jail.”