Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A judge has authorized federal agents to seize more than $1.52 million from bank accounts of Robotics Learning Management LLC and more than $1 million from bank accounts of businesses and charities associated with former House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton.
The seizure order was signed Sept. 9 by U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Yarbrough, according to documents unsealed Tuesday in federal court.
Stapleton, who was indicted Monday on 26 state felony charges, including racketeering, money laundering and fraud, oversaw the program at Albuquerque Public Schools that paid Robotics from federal grant money managed by the state Public Education Department. Robotics provided software and training for APS teachers and students in the vocational and career technical education program at APS.
Publicly available documents don’t say what FBI agents actually found or confiscated from the accounts, but do say the federal government has taken control of $452,419 that was being held by state District Court in Albuquerque after it was seized by the office of Attorney General Hector Balderas in August.
The documents also show federal agents have seized Stapleton’s 2017 Volvo SUV because money from one of the charities was used to pay for it.
Stapleton, a Democrat and longtime representative from House District 19, east of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, resigned from the Legislature on July 30, two days after agents from the Attorney General’s Office served search warrants on her home, APS offices, her family restaurant and the Legislature. She was fired in August from APS, where she was coordinator and director of career and technical education.
Stapleton is charged in state court with five counts of money laundering for allegedly transferring more than $200,000 from a Robotics bank account to companies and charities she had an interest in, including her private consulting firm and the family restaurant, Taste of the Caribbean.
She also faces state charges of taking kickbacks, having an unlawful interest in a public contract and using her legislative position to attempt to get a promotion at APS.
While federal authorities have moved to seize assets, no federal charges have been filed against Stapleton. Federal agents were present during the July raid.
Stapleton and her attorney say she is innocent of any criminal charges and intend to fight to clear her name.
Robotics, based in Washington, D.C., had a sole source contract for years at APS and was paid more than $5 million for what Superintendent Scott Elder called services of questionable value when he asked Attorney General Hector Balderas to investigate Stapleton in April. APS stopped doing business with Robotics after the investigation began.
Records in federal court show the president of Robotics Learning Management Systems LLC, Joseph F. Johnson, told the FBI that Stapleton wasn’t authorized to take money from his company and deposit it into her own businesses.
The money federal agents are seeking to seize was paid to Robotics through the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Educational Act, according to the affidavit – totaling more than $3 million since 2013. The affidavit filed in support of the seizure order said grant money diverted to Stapleton’s business and charitable interests is subject to civil and criminal seizure because federal law prohibits kickbacks and bribes.
Johnson told FBI agents that he and Stapleton have been friends since the 1970s when they both attended New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
Johnson founded Robotics, which offered a software program that promised to help underperforming students in math, and told his longtime friend Stapleton about the computer program. She expressed interest and ultimately got APS to sign a contract with Robotics.
Robotics had a sole-source contract with APS, its only major client, for almost 14 years before the contract was put out to bid in 2019.
According to the seizure warrant filed in federal court, Johnson told FBI agents that he had no financial relationship with Stapleton.
“There is nothing coming to her from our company, period,” Johnson told FBI agents, according to the affidavit.
FBI agents noticed discrepancies in the handwriting on the checks written out to Stapleton’s family restaurant and other businesses and charities.
They concluded, according to the affidavit, that Johnson did not sign the checks deposited into the accounts linked to Stapleton.
According to the affidavit, Johnson said he contributed about $10,000 to the Ujima Foundation and the Charley Morissey Foundation, but bank records showed checks totaling more than $400,000 from Robotics deposited into the accounts of the two charities. Both Johnson and Stapleton served as directors of the charities, but according to court records, Stapleton controlled the bank accounts for both entities.
The affidavit also says that the amount of money going into the charities’ accounts did not match what was being reported in IRS filings. Agents said they found similar discrepancies in state gross receipts tax filings made by Stapleton’s family restaurant and her consulting company, S Williams and Associates.
Johnson was once a rising star in Democratic Party politics.
During the administration of Gov. Toney Anaya in the 1980s, he served as secretary of the Health and Environment Department until he was charged in a criminal complaint with accepting bribes from former business partners in Carlsbad.
The criminal complaint was dismissed in July 1986 by then-District Judge William Schneder after a series of hearings. Schneder ruled that prosecutors had failed to show probable cause that a crime had been committed.
Johnson went on to head the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign in New Mexico for president in the Democratic primary. After Jackson lost to Michael Dukakis in 1988, Johnson went on to be Jackson’s national director of the Rainbow Coalition for two years.
He then went into private business and worked for a private prison company in Washington, D.C.