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Former senator Aragon uses state pension to pay restitution

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Manny Aragon

ARAGON: Admitted to stealing over $600,000

During the 4½ years he served in federal prison, former New Mexico Senate leader Manny Aragon used his taxpayer-supported legislative pension to help pay court-ordered restitution to taxpayers for millions of dollars skimmed from an Albuquerque courthouse construction project.

Aragon gets $2,321 a month from the legislative pension, to which both he and taxpayers made contributions. His restitution payments are at least $1,000 a month.

There was an outstanding balance of at least $426,000 for restitution owed by Aragon and co-defendants as of June 2013, according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office court filing.

Aragon, an Albuquerque Democrat who was once one of the state’s most powerful politicians, was transferred last week from the minimum security Florence Federal Correctional Complex in Colorado to a family home in Bernalillo County’s South Valley. The 66-year-old lawyer is expected to serve the remaining six months of his sentence in home confinement there.

Aragon was sentenced in 2009 to pay New Mexico back for his part in siphoning money from the construction of the Metropolitan Courthouse Downtown. In total, about $4.3 million was reported missing from the project.

Aragon’s restitution totaled nearly $1.2 million, $540,000 of which could be paid with help from three of Aragon’s co-defendants.

Aragon also was ordered in 2009 to pay a $750,000 fine, $662,000 of which was paid immediately with funds from a seized Aragon account.

U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Elizabeth Martinez on Tuesday declined to comment on Aragon’s current restitution status, including how much Aragon has paid toward the fine or the component of restitution for which he was solely responsible. Those court-ordered payments, Martinez said, are protected under the federal Privacy Act.

However, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in a June 2013 court filing, said Aragon had a balance of at least $426,000 in restitution, to which Aragon is ordered to contribute at least $1,000 each month, is shared between the co-defendants but would require Aragon to pay the whole balance if others fail to contribute.

By June 2013, more than $115,000 had been paid by the defendants, although a federal judge denied an Aragon request to account for how much each defendant paid.

Martinez said the balance due on the shared restitution was released in error.

Helping Aragon pay the $1,000 per month restitution payment is the $2,321 Aragon collects monthly through the New Mexico Public Employees Retirement Association as a pension after his 29 years in the state Senate.

Over the course of Aragon’s jail time, he received more than $123,000 through the taxpayer-supported pension fund.

The PERA’s chief of staff, Susan Pittard, said the pension fund continued to pay Aragon while he was in jail because at the time of Aragon’s 2008 guilty plea there was no law allowing the state to request pensions be revoked from public officials convicted of felonies related to their public office.

“It makes common sense to do this,” Pittard said.

Legislation passed in 2012 gave courts the option of revoking pensions as a component of felony sentencing for public officials.

“The legislation was a reaction to this issue,” she said, referring to Aragon’s conviction in the Metropolitan Courthouse case.

“Unfortunately, (the pension revocation law) can’t capture these past cases. You can’t pass a law that retroactively impacts people in a negative fashion.”

Aragon, a lawyer, pleaded guilty in October 2008 to one count of conspiracy and two counts of mail fraud.

Aragon had secured state money for various aspects of the courthouse project.

He admitted stealing more than $600,000, which he got from an engineer who helped arrange a system of fraudulent overbillings on the courthouse’s audio-visual system.