We are digesting the news this week that investigators at the Attorney General’s office suspect Democratic House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque funneled almost a million dollars of public money out of Albuquerque Public Schools, her employer, to benefit herself.
To learn that a trusted champion of under-served communities and one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state may have orchestrated a long-running scheme to grab a slice of public money for herself, is sad news. We are holding out hope that it’s not true, not one more tragic episode in the annals of corrupt New Mexico leaders.
The investigation is laid out in a 32-page search warrant, centered on discoveries of money from a company with a sole source contract with the school district going to organizations or businesses she appears to have substantial control over.
Buried among the details in the damning search warrant is $50,000 in state capital outlay money that in 2007 Williams Stapleton directed to the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs to purchase and equip vans for the African American Performing Arts Center at the State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque. In a 2008 email between Williams Stapleton and Expo New Mexico, she explained the vans were for programs at the center. Their upkeep would be the responsibility of the Charlie Morrisey Education Center and a company called Robotics Learning Management Systems.
The search warrant makes the case that the Charlie Morrisey Education Center is an organization that Stapleton had substantial influence over, and that she directed capital outlay money to it. If this is true, then a lawmaker directed capital outlay money to benefit herself.
Why is this important? New Mexico In Depth and many others have argued for years corruption like this was possible, even likely, so long as the individual capital outlay allocations of lawmakers remained secret. A new law has made these kinds of allocations public starting this year and into the future, but leaves similar past spending in the dark, such as the one in 2007 that investigators detail in the search warrant.
On more than one occasion during legislative debates about increased transparency regarding public money, I’ve heard certain lawmakers say they were offended because the push for greater public disclosure suggested there was corruption at the Roundhouse.
In fact, corruption does happen in state government, with alarming frequency. Here’s a chart we put together in 2018 detailing scandals involving public officials since 2005.
Given this week’s news, it’s clear that the new transparency law this year doesn’t go far enough, because it does nothing to disclose spending by individual lawmakers before this year or address oversight of public infrastructure money.
Why shouldn’t all the details about past infrastructure spending be public? Do we have other lawmakers who’ve directed money to themselves or to organizations controlled by their friends, family, or colleagues? The public deserves to know.
Beyond transparency, where are the checks and balances to catch this behavior? Why are individual lawmakers allowed to allocate money to projects around the state with no questions asked?
Again and again, reports have shown New Mexico uses a capital outlay system that’s ripe for abuse. Add this episode involving the House majority leader as proof of that if everything investigators have found turns out to be true.