The revelation that a prominent state House leader was being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office on suspicion of racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickbacks and violating New Mexico’s Governmental Conduct Act is sending shockwaves across the state.
If true, it is public corruption at its most grotesque — and made worse by the fact that Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, is not just another House member. She is part of the entrenched Democratic power structure in the House of Representatives, serving as majority floor leader.
She’s also one of the most prominent African American politicians in New Mexico. She was the first Black woman elected to the Legislature.
But politics is just one part of her life. In her day job, Williams Stapleton works for Albuquerque Public Schools. She heads the district’s Career and Technical Education Department, and it is primarily in that capacity she is being investigated — although some of her legislative duties may tie into the charges.
According to the search warrant affidavit, allegations against Williams Stapleton involve her connections to Washington, D.C.-based Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC.
The company provides web-based learning materials to APS and has for years. The affidavit alleges Williams redirected money sent to the company — almost a million dollars — to her own interests, of which there were many. Records show some $950,000 in deposits from the company went to businesses and charities associated with Williams Stapleton.
These are serious, stunning allegations. Williams Stapleton has not been charged, and the process needs to play out. In other words, she’s innocent until proven guilty.
However, there is an overarching question, and one that can be answered by her colleagues: What to do about Williams Stapleton’s unpaid job in the state Legislature? At the very least, she needs to be removed from the leadership while the case against her unfolds.
It’s unrealistic to believe Williams Stapleton — the No. 2 Democrat in the House, second only to Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe — could be effective as a leader as she is battling serious felony charges. Later this year, the Legislature faces a special session on redistricting based on the 2020 census. Soon after comes an intense 30-day regular session.
Even if she committed no fraud in office, it’s clear that as a legislator, Williams Stapleton was able to direct money to technology and web-based programs — which is what Robotics Management sold. That appears to be a conflict of interest, the sort all citizen legislators have when they vote on issues that directly affect their livelihoods.
Given the gravity of the charges, even leaving the leadership might not be enough. Though innocent until proven guilty is a standard of proof for court cases, the cloud over Williams Stapleton is serious enough that she should consider resigning sooner than later.
At minimum, that frees her up to defend herself and allows a scandal-free representative to be appointed.
Her fellow lawmakers are beginning the ethics process so they can look at any problems with her legislative work. That could end in a censure, reprimand or expulsion from the Legislature. We hope expulsion is unnecessary. She needs to resign.
A resignation doesn’t preclude lawmakers from examining her actions in the Legislature, but having her out of office makes the process less urgent.
What is urgent is figuring out how this occurred over the years at Albuquerque Public Schools, by far New Mexico’s biggest school district.
Safeguards that should be in place to catch questionable transactions failed, both at the district and state levels. According to the search warrant, Williams’ alleged diversion of funds had been going on for nearly a decade.
While the criminal case proceeds and the legislative ethics probe occurs, officials at APS, the Public Education Department and the State Auditor’s Office need to review their procedures so any fiddling with contracts and payments is caught immediately, not after nearly a million dollars is socked away.
Each allegation of fraud and corruption reduces the faith of citizens in their government. What a sad day for New Mexico.