Credit Albuquerque Public Schools for taking steps to minimize the likelihood of a future massive embezzlement scheme taking place in the district.
Make no mistake, APS did have procedural directives that should have prevented abuse of its procurement process.
But a criminal probe of former House Majority Leader and APS employee Sheryl Williams Stapleton’s involvement in a dubious no-bid contract led to some soul-searching by district staff and the Board of Education that resulted in even tighter proposed rules unveiled last week.
Stapleton, a Democrat and longtime representative from southeast Albuquerque, worked as APS’ director of Career and Technical Education. She allegedly used that position to funnel more than $950,000 to businesses and entities with which she had ties, according to a Sept. 20 indictment outlining 26 state felony charges. They include one count of racketeering, five counts of money laundering and separate counts of soliciting or receiving kickbacks, having an unlawful interest in a public contract and other crimes. Stapleton has denied any wrongdoing.
She oversaw the program at APS that paid a Washington, D.C.-based company, Robotics Learning Management LLC, from federal grant money. Robotics provided software and training for teachers and students in the vocational and career technical education program.
Robotics 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. He asked Attorney General Hector Balderas to investigate Stapleton in April and APS stopped doing business with Robotics.
Stapleton resigned from the Legislature in July, two days after the AG’s Office served search warrants on her home, APS offices, her family restaurant and the Legislature. She was fired from APS in August.
It’s doubtful anyone but an accomplished public servant exerting political influence could have dodged APS’ previous accountability regime, which followed state and federal guidelines. But a procurement policy is only as good as the staff’s ability to withstand political power, perceived or real. The common-sense reforms approved unanimously by the board should make it easier to identify irregularities. Specifically, the district’s new official policy:
• Creates a new code of conduct for procurements;
• Creates rules on competition, impartiality and transparency;
• Creates internal controls to curb “fraud, waste and abuse of APS resources”; and
• Prohibits APS employees from participating in the procurement process if the employee/immediate family have a financial interest in obtaining a contract.
Central to the allegations against Stapleton is the sole-source contract. Stapleton alledgedly helped Robotics secure and maintain that contract. Under the new policy, APS employees involved in the procurement process will have to ensure it is carried out on a competitive basis as determined by the APS purchasing directive, and adheres to rules regarding efficient and effective procurement.
The new policy requires competition exceptions to be approved by the procurement executive director and to include “fact-based justifiable documentation.”
The changes aim to make it more difficult to pull off procurement shenanigans, while empowering staff to ask tough questions.
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.