Lawmakers to launch Stapleton ethics probe

In this 2018 photo, House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, questions a panel of lawyers about the state’s funding formula for public schools during a committee hearing in Albuquerque (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Revelations of a criminal investigation into Sheryl Williams Stapleton rattled the Roundhouse on Wednesday and raised immediate questions about whether she could continue as House majority leader.

Her colleagues in the House – Democratic and Republican leaders alike – said they are initiating the ethics process necessary to investigate any allegations tied to her role as a legislator.

Potential sanctions include censure, reprimand or expulsion from the House.

Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat, is a powerful force in the Legislature, where she has served as House majority leader since 2017 and about 27 years as a member.

She is the second-highest ranking member of the House, playing a key role in political strategy and helping manage the flow of work on the chamber floor.

In interviews and public statements Wednesday, lawmakers generally tried to strike a balance between condemning any appearance of impropriety while also reserving judgment until more information is available.

But leading Democrats and Republicans in the House made it clear they intend to examine the allegations outlined in affidavits filed by the Attorney General’s Office.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he referred the Stapleton case Wednesday to the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee and established an investigative subcommittee.

The subcommittee will work confidentially, he said, but its report will be public if a sanction is recommended. The next potential step would be a trial-like proceeding – conducted in public – before the eight House members of the larger Interim Legislative Ethics Committee.

Any recommendation after that would go to the full House, which could take action in a special session or the 30-day regular session set to begin in January. A redistricting special session is already expected in November or December.

In a joint statement, Egolf, Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos of Las Cruces and caucus Chairwoman Doreen Wonda Johnson of Church Rock – all Democrats – said they have counted Stapleton “as a valued colleague and have never seen any instances of impropriety or criminal behavior in her work serving in the House, but New Mexicans deserve to know that their elected officials hold the highest ethical standards and are free of corruption.

“We will fully cooperate with investigating authorities and will closely monitor the situation as the facts come out regarding these allegations.”

Republican leaders in the House said they would support a thorough investigation, including into anyone who may have been complicit or failed to act.

“The public places tremendous trust in our legislative body and any acts of impropriety or criminal behavior should be met with swift and decisive action,” House Minority Leader James Townsend of Artesia, Minority Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington and caucus Chairwoman Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences – all Republicans – said in a joint statement.

News of the investigation appeared to catch legislators off guard. Some members of the Legislature reached by the Journal said they hadn’t heard of the allegations Wednesday afternoon or knew only what they had read as news broke.

“Corruption of any kind should not be tolerated,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat and advisory member of the Legislative Council, on which Stapleton also serves. But “not until all of the facts are known and a court of law makes a judgment will we know what happened with this issue.”

Sen. Gay Kernan, a Hobbs Republican who serves with Stapleton on the Legislative Education Study Committee, said she knew nothing about the investigation beyond what was reported in the Journal.

“I am very surprised and, of course, believe until something’s proven, we certainly want to give Rep. Stapleton every opportunity to clear up the allegations,” Kernan said.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, was blunt.

“Will she remain majority leader? And for how long??” he asked on Twitter.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said in a written statement that she was “deeply, deeply troubled” by news of the investigation.

Public “confidence in government is seriously damaged by even the appearance of impropriety, or illegal activity, which is why public officials must always hold themselves to the highest possible standard of behavior,” the governor said. “New Mexicans expect and deserve elected officials who, regardless of party, will put the people before themselves.”

The state Republican Party issued a statement saying that if “the allegations prove true, they are a disturbing violation of the sacred public trust.”

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