Thursday, October 16, 2008
By Scott Sandlin And Mike Gallagher
Journal Staff Writer
A standing-room-only audience watched in federal court Wednesday as a man who once stood at the top of New Mexico's political food chain confessed to his crimes.
Former Sen. Manny Aragon agreed to do time in prison and afterward was held up as a warning to other public officials who might be tempted to help themselves to public money.
Aragon Cuts Deal PDF of 12-page Plea Agreement Associated Press story: Former NM Senator Pleads Guilty in Corruption Case Two More Guilty Pleas; Only Aragon, Murphy Set for Trial in Court Corruption Case (Oct. 15, 2008 story) Aragon, 3 Others, Plead Not Guilty (April 13, 2007 story) Feds Allege Inflated Bills Cost Taxpayers (March 30, 2007 story) Key Players (March 30, 2007) State Works Closely With Feds (March 30, 2007) Aragon Has Long Raised Eyebrows (March 30, 2007) Four Indicted in Courthouse Conspiracy (March 29, 2007 story) Summary of Manny Aragon's Political Career (March 29, 2007) Find out more about the Metro Courthouse corruption case from the Journal archives here
The South Valley Democratic power broker, who at one time virtually ruled the New Mexico Senate, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and two counts of mail fraud for his role in the Metropolitan Courthouse construction scandal, in which prosecutors allege more than half a dozen defendants siphoned off $4.2 million.
Faced with a mountain of new evidence against him, Aragon admitted to stealing more than $600,000.
Aragon, 61, faced up to 18 years in federal prison if convicted on all counts at trial, and agreed to a sentence of 67 months. He is the seventh defendant, and easily the most high-profile, to plead guilty in the sweeping corruption case.
"Today in pleading guilty to public corruption charges he has admitted it's critical to repeat that he has admitted what the United States has long been prepared to prove: That he agreed with others to steal what amounted to $4.2 million from the taxpayers of New Mexico by bloating the cost of the construction of the Metro Courthouse," said U.S. Attorney Greg Fouratt.
"It's safe to say few people in the history of New Mexico have wielded more power than ... Manny Aragon," Fouratt said in a statement on behalf of his office, the New Mexico Attorney General and the FBI. Aragon served in the state Senate from 1975 to 2004, when he left to become president of New Mexico Highlands University.
"Whether he was motivated in this case by greed or intoxicated by his influence, only he knows."
An emotional Aragon, long known for his bombastic style and sharp wit, had little to say after he left the courthouse.
"It wasn't a very happy day for me," he said as he departed with his attorneys. But he added, "It's the first day of the rest of my life. It puts this behind us, and we'll move forward."
An audience heavily sprinkled with reporters, lawyers, court officials and law enforcement watched as Aragon confirmed details of his crimes as Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker read out loud from the factual basis for the plea agreement.
Those facts centered on how Aragon received approximately $626,000 from Raul Parra, an engineer who helped arrange a system of fraudulent overbillings on the courthouse audio-visual system.
Parra, former Metro Court administrator Toby Martinez and his wife Sandra Mata Martinez have pleaded guilty in the last week. Architect Marc Schiff, former Albuquerque Mayor Ken Schultz and contractor Manuel Guara had previously pleaded guilty. All of them agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Aragon's role in the scheme was in securing state money for various aspects of the courthouse project in his capacity as a lawmaker.
His plea leaves only court construction manager Michael Murphy, whose trial is set for Oct. 28. Murphy is asking to postpone that date in light of the pleas.
Aragon's legal fate apparently was sealed when Toby Martinez decided to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors. That meant it was likely that computer records and spreadsheets Martinez kept on the scheme would have been allowed into evidence.
While Aragon and his legal team had little to say after the hearing, attorney Ray Twohig told Parker in court that he believed the agreement was in his client's best interest. He cited, among other things, the strength of the government's case.
Aragon's plea was a major victory for FBI agents and federal prosecutors who congratulated each other outside the courtroom. They have been pursuing the investigation into the courthouse scam since the summer of 2005.
Fouratt noted that the theft took place while Aragon was a sitting state senator.
"This is a staggering and devastating end to the career of a larger-than-life public figure," Fouratt said, adding that he hoped the long sentence and "devastating financial consequences" would have a powerful deterrent effect on other public officials.
In the federal sentencing system, Aragon will be eligible for a maximum of 54 days a year good time, meaning that in the best-case scenario, he will have to serve more than four years in prison.
The plea deal with Aragon was hammered out between lead federal prosecutors Jonathon Gerson and Paula Burnett and Aragon's legal team late Tuesday. The document was still being tweaked in the hour before the scheduled 9:15 a.m. hearing.
Standing before Parker when the event got under way, Aragon seemed to have trouble hearing and frequently asked the judge to repeat his questions in the formulaic dance of the plea about his health, education and understanding of the proceedings.
Aragon's deal requires him to waive appeal rights and forfeit an investment account in El Segundo, Calif. Prosecutors said it was worth $740,000 at the time it was seized but may be worth a great deal less now, given recent events in the stock market.
When Aragon is sentenced several months from now by U.S. District Judge William P. "Chip" Johnson, he also could be required to pay restitution to the victim the state of New Mexico in an amount up to $4.2 million.
In Aragon's admissions, he describes being approached in 2001 by Martinez about funds for the Metro Court audio-visual system. Martinez told him getting the money could be mutually beneficial to the tune of $600,000 for Aragon.
"I asked Martinez how much 'extra' would be available from the proceeds of the audio-visual contract, and he told me ... about one million dollars," Aragon's plea agreement says.
Aragon made a capital outlay request to the Senate for $3.6 million, after which Martinez and Aragon got payments from Parra, a mechanical engineer who worked with the courthouse architect.
Parra paid Aragon $626,000 in 2003 and 2004 from the audio-visual contract, but at Parra's request, Aragon provided invoices for consulting to paper over the payments.
"I did not provide anywhere close to $626,000 worth of legal services to Parra," Aragon admits in the plea documents.
Before his plea, Aragon's legal team had lined up retired New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Gene Franchini to testify that in his review of documents supplied by Aragon and his interviews with Aragon and Parra, even a sum as impressive as $600,000 could have been derived from legitimate legal and consulting fees. They had also lined up expert witnesses to attack the prominent Democratic leader's prosecution as politically motivated. Although it garnered headlines, that line of defense was dropped in early September.
Aragon's plea agreement didn't address the facts in a separate scheme to skim money from the courthouse architectural contract awarded to Design Collaborative Southwest.
The indictment charges Aragon with getting cash payments from DCSW principal Schiff, who pleaded guilty in the scheme and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in March 2007.
About $900,000 was taken in phony invoices filed by Schiff to pay Aragon, former Albuquerque Mayor Ken Schultz and Toby Martinez.