SANTA FE, N.M. — Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
A former top media consultant who advised some of New Mexico’s top Democratic politicians was sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday for his role in bilking more than $2.5 million in federal voter education funds awarded to the state.
Texas consultant Armando Gutierrez, whose company was paid millions of dollars to develop a voter education campaign starring then-Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, also was ordered to pay restitution.
The Washington, D.C., inspector general who first raised red flags about the expenses said the criminal prosecution in New Mexico is the only one in the U.S. involving the 2002 Help America Vote Act program, which has disbursed more than $3 billion to the states.
Gutierrez and former lobbyist Joseph Kupfer were convicted in February by a federal jury in Albuquerque of operating a conspiracy from August 2004 through July 2011 to overbill the Secretary of State’s Office for the services. Kupfer, who received kickbacks from Gutierrez, has not been sentenced.
Vigil-Giron, who now goes by Rebecca D. Vigil, wasn’t indicted in the federal case, and related state charges brought against her by state Attorney General Gary King were dismissed last December on speedy-trial issues.
But her alleged involvement in the scheme surfaced during Monday’s sentencing hearing, in which prosecutors pushed for an increased prison term for Gutierrez partly because the fraud scheme involved a public official.
Vigil-Giron authorized a $2 million payment to Gutierrez one day after signing the contract and didn’t require supporting documents when Gutierrez submitted invoices, prosecutors said.
The commercials produced by Gutierrez preceded Vigil-Giron’s unsuccessful bid for a U.S. congressional seat after she left office in 2006.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Neda told federal Judge William P. Johnson that while Vigil-Giron wasn’t indicted, “she was involved.”
Neda said that once the U.S. Election Assistance Commission initiated its investigation, Vigil-Giron produced a “fraudulent amendment to the contract, which also violated New Mexico procurement code,” in an attempt to allay federal investigators’ concerns about where the money went.
Vigil-Giron has said in the past that she did nothing wrong and was the victim of a political attack by Republicans. Her attorney was unavailable for comment Monday.
Gutierrez, who lives in Corpus Christi but has a home in New Mexico, also was convicted of attempting to conceal his criminal behavior by presenting false invoices and other documents to federal investigators once they began asking questions and, later, to a federal grand jury.
Neda told the judge Monday that Gutierrez became a millionaire after Vigil-Giron hired his firm and that Gutierrez used the funds to pay cash for a $600,000 home in Corpus Christi, which is now the subject of a civil forfeiture case.
“It was not a desperate financial need that motivated his criminal behavior. Rather it was sheer greed,” the government said in a sentencing motion.
Neda said Gutierrez and another co-defendant in the case, Elizabeth Kupfer, did a “test run” involving an earlier contract with the state Attorney General’s Office from 2001 to 2004. That contract for a consumer awareness campaign ballooned from $150,000 to $1.1 million without specifying any extra work was to be done.
Gutierrez wanted to see whether the “fraudulent amendments” that illegally increased the contract would be detected by the state Department of Finance, Neda said, and learned from that experience that he could escape scrutiny on the billings for the secretary of state work.
Elizabeth Kupfer already has been sentenced to three years in prison for federal tax evasion in a case related to the fraud investigation.
Gutierrez spoke briefly to the judge, asking for leniency because he takes care of an elderly mother and a wife in ill health and has a 17-year-old son with autism.
“This individual has in fact reached a stage as a minority, as a Hispanic in this country, that not too many people have been able to do,” said his attorney, Ahmad Assed, during the sentencing hearing. He said Gutierrez plans to appeal.
According to his now-defunct company website, Gutierrez had an impressive list of former clients, including former Gov. Bill Richardson. Other former clients included former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, former Attorney General Patricia Madrid, and the Clinton/Gore campaigns in 1992 and 1996, according to the website.
Assed told the judge that Gutierrez, who has a doctorate degree, isn’t likely to return to his career as a political consultant.
“The chances of Dr. Gutierrez going back into the community and doing what he was doing essentially is zero to none.”