OPINION: Speaker sees fury after yet another corruption investigation

  • In US
  • 2021-08-18 15:01:00Z
  • By The Santa Fe New Mexican

Aug. 18-Emotions haven't cooled in the three weeks since Sheryl Williams Stapleton resigned from the state House of Representatives after being targeted in a public corruption investigation.

First there was shock and then sadness, said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

"Now people are really furious," Egolf said of the 44 members of his caucus.

Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, has a slightly different view.

"I'm not sure I'd say furious. Definitely angry," McQueen said. "The allegations, if true, mean she was stealing from kids, right?"

Williams Stapleton resigned from office two days after investigators from the state Attorney General's Office identified her as a suspect in the possible embezzlement of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars from her employer, Albuquerque Public Schools.

She says she's innocent. No charges have been filed, as the investigation is ongoing.

Williams Stapleton's old office at the Capitol is being cleaned out, Egolf said. Democrats are making way for her successor as House majority leader, Rep. Javier Martínez.

McQueen doesn't see Williams Stapleton's departure as a clean break from state government. He says the House must review all of her legislation to determine if it's relevant to criminal inquiries by the attorney general and U.S. attorney.

"We need to investigate whether any of this had a nexus with the Legislature itself," McQueen said.

The attorney general's staff already has flagged several bills Williams Stapleton introduced, including three to fund career technical education courses. She was in charge of the Career and Technical Education Program at APS.

Williams Stapleton, 64, was typically gregarious, often loud, sometimes flamboyant and always combative when debating bills she said would worsen poverty.

She railed against proposals for mass retention of third graders. Holding back kids without their parents' consent would only increase the dropout rate, she said. Bills for higher court fees angered Williams Stapleton just as much. She argued they would harm people already having difficulty paying fines.

"She was kindhearted, smart, good people," said Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants. "I was in shock because never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen."

He says it's hard for him to believe Williams Stapleton embezzled money or broke any other law.

"Where was the school district when it should have been auditing? What's funny to me is that it went on for so long - if it's true," Garcia said.

The affidavit supporting search warrants of Williams Stapleton's home and APS office appears thorough. It provides evidence of $954,000 in school district money being funneled to four businesses and foundations with ties to Williams Stapleton.

A total of $319,122.98 "went directly to Taste of the Caribbean, Williams Stapleton's restaurant," the attorney general's affidavit states.

Not all relevant bank records had been obtained by investigators when they prepared the affidavit.

Williams Stapleton is the latest in a series of state politicians implicated in scandal. If investigators are correct in their suspicions, what she did could exceed the scope of any public corruption case in the last 20 years.

Former Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque, admitted to stealing more than $600,000 through kickbacks during the construction of a courthouse. He served 4 1/2 years in federal prison.

Another former senator, Democrat Phil Griego of San Jose, served 15 months in prison after being convicted of fraud and bribery. He profited illegally in the sale of a state building.

Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, R-Tularosa, embezzled $13,000 in campaign contributions to help pay for her nights at casinos. Duran also doctored campaign records, going so far as to falsely list a former state senator as her campaign treasurer. She served 30 days in jail.

Duran offered a laughable recap of her work.

"At no time did I ever do anything in my official capacity as secretary of state to jeopardize the integrity of the office," she said.

Duran ended up better off than countless law-abiding retirees. She retained three state pensions after pleading guilty to two felonies and four misdemeanors.

If anything helped explain New Mexico's culture of corruption, it was Duran's case.

After the lenient treatment she received, McQueen sponsored bills in 2016, 2017, 2019 and this year to take away public pensions of government officials convicted in corruption cases. Each of his proposals failed.

A bill that became law in 2012 enables prosecutors to seek an exceptional fine in corruption cases, up to the salary and fringe benefits that were paid to a dishonest politician. Attorney General Hector Balderas declined to pursue that option when his staff prosecuted Duran.

Regardless of what happens with Williams Stapleton, New Mexico seems to be leading the West in public corruption cases. And at this clip, Chicago, Boston and New Jersey might be in reach.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.


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