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 4½ 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.

(22) comments

Emily Hartigan

Really challenging. Not that Texas, which I just left, is better (probably worse).

This kind of journalism helps.

The attention of the public helps.

Hope helps.

Maria Bautista

Emily, yes, hope for the future. We have been trapped into a culture of violence, lead by the Mayor.

Khal Spencer

This is the sort of thing the GOP should be running on rather than pitching fits about masks and Covid shots.

Mike Johnson

Yes, the only thing we lead the US in is political corruption and incompetence, and that explains why we are last in all measures of good things. Wake up NM voters, you are the ones responsible for these kind of people running your government and lives, keep electing the same kind of people, expect the same results, now let's talk about the next elections.......will you change, or continue your insanity?

Michael Smith

What exactly is your solution to the problem of public corruption which appears to be endemic to elected officials of both the Republican and Democrat party office holders? We should simply elect aspiring candidates from your political affiliation?

In my opinion, public corruption exists because elected officials and staff are seduced by the powers of office and the temptation to abuse the power of public office is more attractive than the risks of getting caught - which seems low - and the potential rewards of abuse of office are high. I simply don't buy the 'elect my liberal/conservative candidate' argument because the public knows that crooked/criminal conduct is rampant and bipartisan in nature.

Greed and corruption - like COVID-19 - is a pathogenic virus that has the potential to infect all public office holders in the absence of scrutiny by the press and strict enforcement by the civil/criminal justice system, in my view.

What is your recommended answer to your own rhetorical question; "will you change, or continue your insanity?"

Mike Johnson

That is a good question, and part of the answer is what Chris so eloquently states, there must be strict oversight and safeguards in place to keep these kind of people in line. There are volumes of things the Santa Fe Ring, with Egolf, Wirth, and Webber as leaders, that should have been investigated and acted on over the years. No oversight, no punishment, and corruption is rampant, as today. I have never voted for anyone who was found to be or is corrupt, my state rep. is a train wreck waiting to happen and I knew that long ago when her crimes were exposed, and have never voted for her, but the majority did, that is not on me. So the problem is not in who I vote for, it is who gets elected, so you are asking the wrong person, ask Mr. Scanlon or Mr. Cook, they seem to be quite pleased with all the elected NM government politicians. They're the ones who need to change, not me, I am not responsible for this mess of a state's political problems.

Russell Scanlon

Mr. Johnson: Regardless of my political affiliation, you have willfully and completely misrepresented my feelings about the current problems in NM state government.

Khal Spencer

Leadership counts, and I recall that leadership did not shine when Carl Trujillo was stabbed in the back right before the primary and replaced with a clearly immature candidate who thought it was OK to use public money for prohibited expenses, all the while with leadership remaining quiet as churchmice as that candidate was elected.

You want to send the wrong message to people aspiring to political office? That's the way to do it. Toeing the leadership line is more important than public integrity. The only reason Democrats are better at graft is that the D party has been in power for so long. In states or localities where the GOP rules, I'm sure the cookie jar has red rather than blue hands pilfering the goods.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup][thumbup]She is a classic example, and the people who put and keep her in power as well.

Red Eagle

[thumbup] it’s time to clean house, the entire house!

Chris Mechels

Mike, a bit of history might be useful. The Legislature neutered the Grand Jury in 1993, look it up. In the decades leading up to that, the DA had increasingly gotten control of the Grand Jury over time, so 1993 was the "nail in coffin". To address our extreme government corruption, including Egolf, the most direct route is to restore the Grand Jury, throw the DA out of the GJ room, and let the GJ indict government Malfeasance.

The last time Malfeasance was prosecuted seems to be about the time the GJ was neutered. I have approached our DA to prosecute Malfeasance and they laugh at me, and say the AG does that. The AG DOES NOT prosecute Malfeasance of course, perhaps because AG Balderas is himself a malfeasor.

All those running the government swear an Oath to our laws and Constitution, and it means nothing. They post a Performance Bond, to guarantee the performance of their duties, and the Bond is never collected. Who's to collect the bond?

We are in free fall, in a nihilistic culture, manifested in the NM government. We will remain last in the nation, because we don't follow our own laws. Passing more laws is not the answer. I've been attempting to get enforcement of the NM Rules Act, a very important reform passed in 2017. The main person responsible for enforcement, who refuses to enforce, is Matt Ortiz, once on the SF City Council, a disbarred attorney. His superiors, who simply don't care; the Public Records Commission; including the AG, the SOS and the State Auditor. There you have it, the root of our problems. Malfeasance at the highest levels, by those elected to enforce our laws.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup] Well stated!

Michael Smith

@MilanSimonich My wife and I retired and moved to New Mexico three years ago. I agree public corruption appears 'off the charts' here. Suggestion: The Santa Fe New Mexican should consider developing a network of news media that collaborate to root out public corruption by agreeing to issue IPRA requests for each elected official in the state - with appropriate priorities for state executive offices and subordinate agencies throughout New Mexico - so that each elected official is on notice that all available public-owned communication devices are subject to IPRA review 24/7 365.

Public corruption seems to be nearly as prevalent and pathogenic as COVID-19 in New Mexico. The inverse solution to public corruption is to 'unmask' all elected public servants and staff who are in a position of public trust in similar respect to how the Governor mandates that all New Mexicans must wear a mask to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

I realize reviewing IPRA's by the media is probably an overwhelming task, but New Mexico public corruption exists because the public officials have little fear or respect for laws that are intended to prevent abuse of power.

IPRA seems to be the only tool available to the New Mexico press/media to unmask and report on corrupt public officials by reviewing every text and email assigned to every public official throughout the state at all levels of government. I suggest the press/media organize, collaborate and force every public official to reveal his/her official communications to the scrutiny of public review.

Ann Maes

New Mexico joins the ranks of corruption as so many other states. Qué Triste!

Russell Scanlon

Disgraceful. Where are the public servants?

Richard Reinders

Utah?

Mike Johnson

This is all politics, there is no such thing in partisan politics, where have you been? This is all about power, ego, and money, not public service, wake up.

Russell Scanlon

I respectfully disagree. While corruption has always existed, there are lots of people in government who sincerely want to serve our country and make it a better place for everyone. I know that the Republican Party has been on a campaign to discredit and dismantle the government since Ronald Reagan (and I’m not excusing the Dems), but the fact is that we need a strong working government to function as a nation. And it is not a miracle—it depends on the goodwill and participation of every citizen. Besides—when a crisis hits (hurricane, floods, pollution, COVID, etc.) it’s usually the so-called “Red” states that are yammering for federal assistance. Your assumptions about politics are leading to a dark and chaotic place that is unacceptable to most citizens.

P.J. Catanach

[thumbup] Thank you for your well thought out reply!

Mike Johnson

"...there are lots of people in government who sincerely want to serve our country and make it a better place for everyone." If there are, none of them represent me today, nor since I moved back to my 3rd generation birthplace after retiring. Look at who represents me today, a county commissioner I have never seen and who never responds to anything I ask for, a state rep. who is a corrupt grifter law enforcement refuses to prosecute for her crimes, a state senator who is as invisible and unreachable as my county commissioner, a US Rep and Senators who ignore and reject anything I have asked for or questioned, and none of these people have I ever voted for nor do I have one ounce of respect for as they are incompetent and do not represent my values, priorities, or experiences in life. The ones you speak of must be in some other state.

rodney carswell

Exactly right!

Emily Koyama

We need an EFFECTIVE government. I think "strong" leads to overbearing and controlling...probably not the best choice of words.

As for sucking up Federal funds, California, with it's endless wildfires, is probably leading the "yammering" right now. And when the big one hits, turning Arizona into beachfront property, all bets are off.

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