After nearly three decades of serving in the Legislature, House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton resigned Friday amid a damning criminal investigation alleging racketeering, money laundering, illegal kickbacks and violations of New Mexico’s Governmental Conduct Act.
“Due to the recent allegations that have been lodged against me, which I unequivocally deny, I have made the difficult decision that it is in the best interest of the state that I resign,” Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, wrote in a one-page letter to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.
“This is a decision that weighs heavily on me, and which I have made after a tremendous amount of consideration of the best interest of the people,” she wrote. “In short, because I must devote a significant amount of time and energy to fully defend against these allegations, I believe it is in the best interest of this state and the House of Representatives that my position as both a member of the House of Representatives and Majority Floor Leader be replaced with a representative who can fully and competently resume the tasks and duties that are necessary to continue serving this great state.”
Efforts to reach Williams Stapleton for comment were unsuccessful. In a statement, her lawyer, Ahmad Assed of Albuquerque, said her decision to resign reflects her dedication and commitment to her constituents, colleagues and the citizens of New Mexico.
“She continues to be deeply troubled by the false allegations raised by the superintendent of [Albuquerque Public Schools], and unequivocally denies them,” he said, referring to district Superintendent Scott Elder, who alerted authorities about the alleged wrongdoing in April.
“The investigation is in its very initial stages and no comment can be made as to any of the allegations,” Assed said. “However, we are confident that the conclusion of the investigation will put them to rest.”
House Democratic leaders wrote in a statement that Williams Stapleton’s resignation is appropriate and in the best interest of the Legislature and the state “given the weight of the allegations” and “the ongoing investigation.”
“There is important work to be done for the people of New Mexico, and House Democrats and our strong leadership team will continue to remain focused on serving our constituents and moving our great state forward,” they wrote.
Senate Republican leaders issued a statement in response to the resignation late Friday in which they wrote that the evidence leveled against Williams Stapleton “is damning and will further erode the public’s trust in our state government” and that citizens deserve a full and extensive investigation.
“Corruption by public officials has long plagued our state and we must send a message that no person, regardless of title or status, is above the law,” they wrote.
The House Democratic Caucus still plans to meet Saturday to discuss Williams Stapleton’s resignation “and the future of the position of House Majority Leader,” a news release states.
Williams Stapleton, who turned 64 on Friday, has served in the Legislature since 1995. She is the first Black woman elected to the state Legislature.
In her resignation letter, Williams Stapleton wrote that the “continuity in governance” is her highest priority.
“This is a pivotal moment that cannot be hindered by any outside interruptions that will impede the continued flow of government and the provision of services to the people of New Mexico,” she wrote.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who had called Thursday for Williams Stapleton to resign if she is indicted, issued a statement Friday through her press secretary.
“As I said to the media members at our press availability yesterday, this was my expectation,” the governor said of Williams Stapleton’s resignation. “These are incredibly serious and significant allegations. I anticipate a rigorous and thorough law enforcement investigation.”
Calls for her resignation grew following revelations Wednesday that authorities had executed search warrants at Williams Stapleton’s Albuquerque business office and her home in what has become one of the biggest cases of alleged public corruption in New Mexico.
“I am a criminal defense lawyer and civil rights attorney, so I believe fiercely in Rep. [Williams] Stapleton’s right to mount a defense and that she should receive a fair trial,” Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said before news broke that she had resigned.
“But as a colleague in the Legislature, there’s no question in my mind that at this point she needs to resign from her position,” he said. “She needs to focus on defending herself from … a legal situation, a criminal case, that could put her away in prison early into her 70s.”
According to a search warrant affidavit, the allegations involve Williams Stapleton’s connections to what appeared to be a Washington, D.C.-based company, Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC, which was supposedly providing web-based learning materials to Albuquerque Public Schools for years. Williams Stapleton worked as coordinator and director of the district’s Career and Technical Education Department for years and became involved with the procurement process, documents state. She was placed on administrative leave Wednesday.
A search warrant affidavit outlined an elaborate and yearslong scheme involving her son and others. The affidavit stated she, as well as companies she owns and nonprofits with which she is involved, received about $953,000 from Robotics.
The affidavit also raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest with Williams Stapleton’s position in the Legislature. In addition to serving as the second-ranking member of the House, Williams Stapleton has been a member of the House Education Committee since at least 2011 and an interim member of the Legislative Education Study Committee since at least 2005.
“A person holding those positions in the Legislature might have the ability through power, authority, influence, and official acts to dictate, introduce, deny, alter, or otherwise directly affect legislation, appropriations, and funding for [Albuquerque Public Schools] in general, and specifically for their own programs or interests,” the affidavit states.
Members of House expressed shock at the allegations against Williams Stapleton before she resigned.
“One thing to understand is that Sheryl was a staple of the Roundhouse for 26 years,” said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque, who has served in the Legislature since 2019.
“It was like, you know, you breathe air, the sky is blue, Sheryl’s a part of the Legislature and leadership — and so it was shocking to hear all this because it just seemed totally out of character for the person that I knew her to be,” she said.
Though she didn’t know Williams Stapleton well, Hochman-Vigil said, she thought the fellow lawmaker seemed to be “very effective” as a legislator and knowledgeable on education issues.
“One of the bills that is being investigated right now for potential illegal diversion of funds I actually co-sponsored with her for career technical education funding, which was really shocking and upsetting for me for obvious reasons,” Hochman-Vigil said.
Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said he “would not have in a million years thought” he would be reading in the newspaper about alleged criminal wrongdoing by Williams Stapleton. Ely declined further comment, citing his role as co-chairman of the interim Legislative Ethics Committee and “the fact that we’re going to be looking at this pretty seriously.”
Barbara Aikins, past president of the Rio Rancho chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she’s known Williams Stapleton since about 1990 and doesn’t believe the allegations that have been lodged against her.
“It doesn’t seem like something that she would do, you know,” Aikins said. “Why risk her job and everything for something like that?”
Aikins said she only knows Williams Stapleton as a lawmaker, where she has been an advocate for the poor and Blacks. She also said the allegations have been blown out of proportion, which she attributes primarily to Williams Stapleton being Black.
“Other people have done just as bad,” she said. “They will blow hers out of proportion compared to white people or Hispanics.”
Originally from the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Williams Stapleton moved to New York as a young girl with her family, according to her personal website. She attended school in New York through high school and then attended New Mexico State University for her undergraduate studies. She received her bachelor’s degree in science in 1978 and her master’s in multicultural education in 1987.
“Her love for education continued as she earned another advanced degree as an education administrator in 1990 and doctoral degree at the University of New Mexico in educational leadership,” the website states.
“Sheryl’s life-long career as an educator has directly identified her as a champion for public schools, teachers, and their students,” the website states. “She has worked tirelessly on behalf of all students — particularly minority students and students who face the many challenges brought on by poverty.”
Candelaria, the Albuquerque state senator, accused Williams Stapleton of being a hypocrite because the money in question was supposed to be spent on education.
“Sheryl has always been this major political dominant force on education issues and has always relied on the fact of her experience, her work in education, etcetera, to really just sort of like dominate that space,” he said. “And that’s fine. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s democracy.
“But how the hell do you do that one day knowing that you are stealing money from children the next?” he asked. “It reflects such a warped sense of morality that I no longer believe it appropriate for her to serve in the Legislature.”
Although for different reasons, Williams Stapleton didn’t either.
The Bernalillo County Commission is responsible for appointing a new member to carry out the remainder of Williams Stapleton’s term, House Democrats wrote in a news release.