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Former state House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton faces significant potential prison time if convicted of the more than two dozen felony charges – including racketeering and money laundering – filed against her last week and made public Monday.
Stapleton has been indicted on 26 state felony and two misdemeanor counts for her alleged role in routing money meant for vocational education at Albuquerque Public Schools to businesses and charities in which she had an interest.
Charges in the indictment handed up by a grand jury last week and filed in Bernalillo County District Court on Monday include one count of racketeering, five counts of money laundering and separate counts of soliciting or receiving kickbacks and having an unlawful interest in a public contract.
Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat who had represented District 19, east of the University of New Mexico, since she was elected in 1994, has said through her attorney that she is innocent of any criminal charges and intends to clear her name. She resigned from the House two days after search warrants were served on her home on July 28.
“An indictment does not equal a conviction,” Stapleton’s attorney, Ahmad Assed, said Monday. “Sheryl did not intend to commit any crime or crimes, and we are interested in understanding the attorney general’s theory of this case.
“The indictment doesn’t provide much in the way of specifics, so we’ll be interested to see what evidence the attorney general has.”
Stapleton, 65, was fired Aug. 31 from her $79,000-a-year job at APS as coordinator and director of Career and Technical Education.
The racketeering, fraud and two of the money laundering charges are second-degree felonies, with a potential nine-year sentence for each count. One of the money laundering charges is a third-degree felony, with a potential three year-prison sentence. Most of the other charges are fourth-degree felonies, with potential 18-month sentences.
The charges stem from an APS contract with Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC, a Washington, D.C.,-based company that has provided software and training for vocational students for more than 15 years at a cost of more than $5 million. Stapleton oversaw the contract, and investigators believe she diverted more than $950,000 from the contract into personal and business accounts that included her personal consulting firm and the family restaurant.
Count 12 of the indictment charges her with using her legislative position to request or obtain a higher-ranking position at APS in return for getting the school district additional funding from the state. It says this occurred on or about March 31, 2021.
APS Superintendent Scott Elder asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate Stapleton’s involvement with Robotics in April. The investigation became public a few months later when state investigators served search warrants on Stapleton’s Albuquerque home, offices at APS and the Legislature, and a family business, the Taste of the Caribbean restaurant.
APS stopped doing business with Robotics shortly after the investigation began.
The search warrant affidavits said APS employees began raising questions about the district’s contract with Robotics in 2018 when an invoice was mislabeled as a purchase order. The affidavits recounted banking transactions involving Robotics and Stapleton dating back to 2012, but the indictment only alleges criminal conduct dating back to 2016.
Stapleton is accused in the indictment of having an unlawful interest in the contract and soliciting or receiving a kickback from the company for approving and submitting vouchers on the company’s behalf. She also is charged with failing to disclose her income from Robotics on financial disclosure forms public officials and legislators are required to file with the secretary of state.
The indictment alleges that from September 2016 to June 2021, she committed money laundering five times in transactions. Two of those transactions were over $100,000, and the other three were lesser amounts.
Some of the charges against Stapleton involve alleged action – or inaction – during her lengthy legislative tenure.
That includes several alleged violations of the state Governmental Conduct Act, which prohibits elected officials from using their positions to obtain personal benefits.
In one of those public corruption charges, Stapleton is accused of failing to accurately disclose her annual income on required yearly reports.
Meanwhile, investigators have also scrutinized legislative capital outlay appropriations sponsored by Stapleton, which over the years provided funding for technical education, robot systems and new vans for the African American Performing Arts Center and Exhibit Hall at the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque. The facility is named for Stapleton.
New Mexico’s capital outlay system did not previously require disclosure of which projects were funded by which lawmaker, but the Legislature this year approved a law requiring that each legislator’s funded projects be publicly posted.
Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, who sponsored the bill, said the public deserves to know how public dollars are spent and described the allegations against Stapleton as troubling.
“If she was using capital outlay to fund programs that she was illegally involved with, obviously that’s something we need to look into,” McQueen told the Journal.
He also cited the possibility of strengthening an existing state law to ensure that New Mexico elected officials convicted of public corruption charges would have to forfeit their pensions.
According to the search warrant affidavits, Stapleton moved money from Robotics bank accounts in Albuquerque to her business accounts and in some cases to her personal bank accounts.
Other charges include nine counts of engaging in an official act for personal financial gain – approving invoices from Robotics to enhance her personal financial interest while working at APS – along with two counts of willful failure to collect or pay taxes and one count of evading taxes that carry a potential six-month to three-year prison sentence.
The indictment does not specify how much money was involved in the tax counts.
“The investigation focused on protecting students and the funding intended for their educational services, as public officials must act in the best interests of students,” Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement. “Our office looks forward to presenting this case before a jury.”
The FBI also has subpoenaed records from APS having to do with the Robotics contract and Stapleton’s involvement with it. Also, Internal Revenue Service and FBI agents were present when the search warrants were served at Stapleton’s home.
Journal Capitol Bureau chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of felony counts Stapleton is facing.