Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton resigned from the Legislature on Friday as law enforcement agents conducted a criminal investigation into possible kickbacks and violations of the Governmental Conduct Act – an abrupt end to a 27-year rise to power at the Roundhouse.
In her resignation letter, Stapleton said she “unequivocally” denies the allegations against her but that it’s best for the state if she steps down.
“This is a decision that weighs heavily on me, and which I have made after a tremendous amount of consideration of the best interest of the People,” she said in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico’s chief elections officer.
Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat, said her resignation would allow her to focus the needed “time and energy to fully defend against these allegations.”
No charges have been filed against Stapleton.
The state Attorney General’s Office and a federal grand jury this week served subpoenas on Albuquerque Public Schools, where Stapleton works as coordinator and director of Career and Technical Education.
A search warrant affidavit said the Attorney General’s Office was conducting a “criminal investigation of racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickback, and violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.”
An APS vendor, Robotics Managing Learning Systems, paid more than $950,000 to four charities and businesses Stapleton either owns or had close ties to, according to the search warrant affidavit.
The state’s criminal investigation came after APS Superintendent Scott Elder sent Attorney General Hector Balderas a letter in April outlining concerns raised by the district’s procurement division.
Attorney: Presumption of innocence
Stapleton and her attorney, Ahmad Assed, made clear Friday they will vigorously fight to clear her name.
In a written statement, Assed said his client is “deeply troubled by the false allegations raised by the Superintendent of APS, and unequivocally denies them.”
Stapleton, he said, “adamantly maintains” her innocence and is eager to cooperate with the investigation.
“She is presumed innocent under the law, particularly when no charges have been filed,” Assed said. “There is a high burden to present evidence to support proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the State must meet to overcome the presumption of her innocence.”
Majority leader since 2017
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he received Stapleton’s resignation letter Friday afternoon.
He called Stapleton’s decision “appropriate and in the best interest of the Legislature and the state.”
Stapleton is leaving after 27 years as a member of the House of Representatives. She became the House majority leader in 2017, making her the second-highest ranking member of the chamber.
The majority leader plays a key role in determining political strategy and managing the flow of work taken up by the full House.
Stapleton’s resignation comes as House Democrats were preparing to hold a private caucus meeting Saturday to weigh whether she should remain in her leadership role.
Instead, they will now consider whether to pick a new majority leader immediately and, if so, who will get the job. A full session of the Legislature isn’t expected until late this year, when lawmakers are set to take up redistricting.
Who takes Stapleton’s seat in the House will be determined by the Bernalillo County Commission, where Democrats hold a majority. The appointee would serve until the next election.
Stapleton represents neighborhoods along East Central Avenue in Albuquerque, roughly between San Mateo and Louisiana. The district stretches generally from Gibson to Lomas.
In her resignation letter – released by House Democrats – Stapleton said she had served as a legislator and majority leader “with great distinction and humility.”
But she also said it was appropriate for someone to replace her who can devote their full attention to the job.
“This is a pivotal moment that cannot be hindered by any outside interruptions that will impede the continued flow of government and the provision of services to the people of New Mexico,” Stapleton said.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, who served with Stapleton in the state House, called it “a sad day in New Mexico politics.”
“Rep. Stapleton must be held accountable,” Pearce said, “and we hope the investigation and judicial process will take the proper course in this matter.”