Editorial: Stapleton was right to resign quickly amid criminal probe

Whether the “incredibly serious” allegations, as the governor described them, hold up or not, it’s inconceivable at this point how now-former Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton could have effectively represented her constituents while under investigation for fraud, racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickbacks and violations of the state’s Governmental Conduct Act.

The House majority leader and Albuquerque Democrat did the right thing by resigning her legislative seat Friday.

Search warrants served this week at her home and elsewhere allege Stapleton was involved in a kickback scheme with an Albuquerque Public Schools vendor that was paid more than $5 million for over a decade. Investigators with the Attorney General’s Office are looking into whether Stapleton used both her legislative position and her job as coordinator and director of APS’ Career and Technical Education Department to help steer sole-source, no bid contracts to Washington, D.C.-based Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC, which did business with APS from 2006 until this summer.

Investigators say they have found bank records showing that businesses and charities Stapleton either owns or had close ties to received more than $950,000 from Robotics dating back to 2012. All the while Stapleton maintained in her financial disclosure forms filed with the secretary of state that her only income was from her job at APS, which has placed her and at least 11 other employees on paid administrative leave.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury subpoena was served on APS this week seeking records as part of a parallel investigation to the AG’s probe.

The allegations are incredibly serious claims of public graft, the kind that have landed public officials from New Mexico in prison before, from former U.S. Cabinet secretary Albert B. Fall’s bribery and conspiracy convictions in the infamous “Teapot Dome” scandal in 1929 to former state Sen. Phil Griego’s 18-month prison sentence in 2018 for failing to disclose his $50,000 commission in the sale of a state-owned building in Santa Fe.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday called on Stapleton, a fellow Democrat and the second-highest ranking member of the New Mexico House of Representatives, to resign “if and when there is an indictment or arrest.” Stapleton did everyone a favor by not waiting for that shoe to drop.

On Friday, in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Stapleton said she “unequivocally” denies the allegations against her, and resigning “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.” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe called the decision “appropriate and in the best interest of the Legislature and the state.”

Stapleton could not possibly have served her constituents effectively at this point. Waiting for an indictment or arrest would have been a disservice to the residents of her Southeast Heights district. They – like all constituents – deserve full and effective representation, not to wonder if their concerns are on hold while the representative meets with her criminal attorney or if she will still be in office next week.

The silver lining in this sordid affair is the APS business office and Superintendent Scott Elder. Rennette Apodaca, who heads APS’ business systems and procurement department, refused to ignore sketchy paperwork and is to be commended for persisting with tough questions. And Elder initiated the state’s criminal investigation with an April 19 letter to AG Hector Balderas barely a month after taking over as permanent superintendent. Both exemplify true public service in standing up to a powerful state lawmaker and taking action on a long-standing internal APS issue.

In the coming days, weeks and months, Stapleton deserves her day in court should it come to that. Her constituents deserve representation. And taxpayers deserve answers. Her resignation should make all three easier.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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