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Guilty plea in veteran program fraud case

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Max Tafoya, owner of an Albuquerque-area construction company and the former St. Catherine’s Indian School property in Santa Fe, pleaded guilty Tuesday to defrauding a federal program intended to benefit disabled veterans.

That fraud resulted in federal contracts totalling almost $11 million for M.R. Tafoya Construction Inc., including work at the Santa Fe National Cemetery, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque. Tafoya, 63, would get a 57-month prison sentence under his plea agreement.

Max Tafoya

TAFOYA: Restitution not yet determined

Tafoya’s son-in-law, Tyler Cole, 41, of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, also entered a guilty plea to participating in the fraud, with the plea agreement calling for a 37-month prison sentence.

The federal court judge will decide later if any restitution or forfeiture of assets will be required.

The way the scheme worked, according to the indictment, was that Tafoya paid his stepbrother Andrew Castillo, a Florida resident disabled during military service, $600 per week to use his name and status to make Tafoya Construction appear to qualify for contracts set aside for service-disabled veterans.

Tafoya and Cole then drew up documents making it appear that Castillo was the majority owner of Tafoya Construction, worked in the company’s Albuquerque office and had signed the contracts and bonds related to the Veterans Affairs contracts from 2009-10. Tafoya also admitted going to Florida to get Castillo to sign additional documents in an attempt to cover up the fraud, according to Tuesday’s plea.

Castillo pled guilty to a conspiracy charge in October 2011 but has not yet been sentenced.

Under the Veterans Affairs’ Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business Program, Tafoya Construction got contracts for work at four different national cemeteries. Besides Santa Fe, these included sites in Texas, Colorado and Missouri.

Around that time, Tafoya also had been in discussions about selling some of the old St. Catherine Indian School land to the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

That sale never went through, a fact that, together with other issues, helped lead to continuing contention between Tafoya and the city of Santa Fe.

Tafoya filed a lawsuit last month contending that the city and the New Mexico School for the Arts and its Art Institute conspired to thwart the sale. Tafoya claimed the city was scheming to acquire the land.

The City Council designated 11 buildings as historic landmarks and the city’s Historic District Review Board denied Tafoya’s request to demolish three buildings on the campus. Tafoya’s lawsuit claimed the city would lease the land to the school.

Earlier, the city went to court and got a judge’s ruling ordering Tafoya, through the firm New Mexico Consolidated Construction, to do more to maintain buildings on the site and secure them from vandals.

John Polk, attorney for NMCC in relation to that property, told the Journal he didn’t think Tuesday’s plea by Tafoya will affect the status of the campus because “St. Catherine’s is owned by a corporation and not by Max.”

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