Former House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton — as recently as two months ago one of New Mexico’s most influential politicians — could face 79 years in prison if convicted on all 28 criminal counts handed down by a grand jury on Monday.
Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, was indicted on racketeering, money laundering and fraud charges in connection with what prosecutors have called an elaborate scheme to financially gain from a deal she helped broker with a Washington, D.C.-based company through her position as the head of the Career and Technical Education department at Albuquerque Public Schools, her employer.
She recently was fired from the school district.
All but two of the charges are felonies, and four charges carry a sentence of nine years of imprisonment and fines up to $10,000. Many of the others carry a basic sentence of 18 months and fines not to exceed $5,000.
Williams Stapleton, 64, has denied any wrongdoing but resigned from her legislative seat in late July, saying she would put all her efforts into fighting the charges. Her lawyer, Ahmed Assed of Albuquerque, did not return a call seeking comment.
The grand jury indictment, initiated by a monthslong probe by the state Attorney General’s Office, lays out a series of specific criminal actions, some dating as far back as September 2015 and others as recently as June 30.
One of the counts, a second-degree felony charge of racketeering, states Williams Stapleton was “associated with a criminal enterprise.” Other charges include:
- Five counts of money laundering that add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in diverted funds from the school district to “entities with which she [Williams Stapleton] was associated.”
- One count of fraud, alleging Williams Stapleton tried to cheat the district, resulting in her receiving “over $20,000, [in] money that belonged to someone other than her.”
- One charge of soliciting or receiving an illegal kickback “in cash or in kind” from Robotics Learning Management LLC, the East Coast company that provided web-based learning materials to the district, in return for arranging or recommending the purchase, lease or ordering of the company’s goods by Albuquerque Public Schools.
“The investigation focused on protecting students and the funding intended for their educational services, as public officials must act in the best interests of students; and our office looks forward to presenting this case before a jury trial,” Attorney General Hector Balderas wrote in an email Monday.
Rennette Apodaca, who heads the Albuquerque school district’s procurement and accounts payable department, in 2018 first questioned the irregularities that led to the investigation after receiving an invoice incorrectly listed as a purchase order from Robotics Learning Management for a teacher training product called CyberQuest.
Subsequent searches by Apodaca raised more questions about Robotics Learning’s history, address and practices. She discovered that although the company listed a post office box in Albuquerque, it is not registered or licensed to conduct business in New Mexico.
Investigators from the Attorney General’s Office conducted searches at Williams Stapleton’s Albuquerque business office in July and had been looking into irregularities in her work at Albuquerque Public Schools after receiving a letter from district Superintendent Scott Elder, who outlined suspicions of potential violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.
Luis Robles, a lawyer representing Albuquerque Public Schools, said in a brief phone interview, “It’s unfortunate our concern became criminal. But it needed to happen. If those actions are criminal, they need to be dealt with.”
The grand jury indictment, filed Friday in the 2nd Judicial District Court, includes a notice to Williams Stapleton and Assed to appear for an arraignment at a date to be determined, where a bond will be set.
It also includes a list of conditions for Williams Stapleton to follow before that arraignment, including one prohibiting her from leaving Bernalillo County, where she lives. She must also keep her attorney informed of her whereabouts and report any changes to her home or work address to him.
Williams Stapleton was the first Black woman elected to serve in the Legislature, where she has represented Albuquerque’s District 19 since 1995.
The investigation has raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest with Williams Stapleton’s powerful position in the Legislature, where she was the No. 2 Democrat in the House after Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. She 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.
One of the misdemeanor charges says she used her position as a legislator to “obtain personal benefits or pursue private interests,” though it does not provide specifics.
It’s unclear if anyone else will be charged in the probe. The Attorney General’s Office filed a search warrant affidavit in the case saying investigators believe about 60 percent of the money paid to the Robotics company by the Albuquerque school district between 2014 and 2021 was redirected to “Sheryl Williams Stapleton’s direct interests,” including her son, David Hendrickson; her restaurant, A Taste of the Caribbean; and a private company she ran, S. Williams Associates.
That money amounted to $954,386.04, according to the affidavit.
Attorney General’s Office spokesman Matt Baca said investigators are continuing to look into the matter, “including whether and to what extent other people may be involved.”