AG's Office serves warrant on lawmaker in criminal investigation

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Jul. 28—Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a powerful member of the leadership in the state House of Representatives, is under criminal investigation by the Attorney General's Office on allegations of racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickbacks and violations of New Mexico's Governmental Conduct Act.

Investigators from the Attorney General's Office conducted searches at Williams Stapleton's Albuquerque business office Tuesday night and her home Wednesday morning, and had been looking into irregularities in her work as an administrator at Albuquerque Public Schools since the spring, apparently prompted by a letter from district Superintendent Scott Elder. In the letter, Elder outlined suspicions of potential violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.

Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, is the House Majority Floor Leader, second only to House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, within the Democratic caucus. She headed Albuquerque Public Schools' career and technical education department for years and has been in the Legislature since 1995.

According to an arrest warrant affidavit, the allegations involve Williams Stapleton's connections to a Washington, D.C.-based company, Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC, which has provided web-based learning materials for the district for years.

The 32-page affidavit describes in great detail irregularities in forms submitted by Robotics for payment by APS, the state's largest school district, outlining deep connections between Williams Stapleton and the company and how some of the funds the district paid to the firm eventually went to businesses she owned — and to her own bank accounts.

"The evidence indicated Sheryl Williams Stapleton was the eventual recipient of that APS money," the affidavit stated.

According to the affidavit, investigators believe about 60 percent of the money paid to the company by the district between 2014 and 2021 "was subsequently redirected to Sheryl Williams Stapleton's direct interests, including her son, David Hendrickson, her restaurant, A Taste of the Carribean, S. Williams & Associates and the Ujima and Charley Morrisey foundations.

That money amounted to $954,386.04, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit said "the evidence also indicates that in some cases that money was further directed into Sheryl Williams Stapleton's personal bank accounts."

The district has paid Robotics more than $5.3 million since 2006, the document said.

The affidavit said the company's primary source of income was its contracts with the district, and that both APS employees and Attorney General's Office investigators noted the procurement process as it applied to the company was not "in accordance with state law."

"Sheryl Williams Stapleton is directly involved in this process," the affidavit stated. "The facts and circumstances surrounding this investigation suggest that she (among other things) proposed and secured funding through the legislative process for the programs she directs. She provided sole source justification for the continued procurement of Robotics services, interjected herself on behalf of Robotics when their contract to be in jeopardy, provided documentation for and acted as a point of contact between APS and Robotics."

In May, according to the affidavit, the school district told Attorney General's Office investigators three checks written to Robotics had not been deposited but were mailed to a post office box in Albuquerque. After sending a letter to the company inquiring about the uncashed checks, all three were deposited the next day. Video surveillance at a Bank of America branch showed Williams Stapleton "negotiating" the deposits of the checks, totaling $90,000. Similar events also were recoreded last year.

On Wednesday afternoon, Elder wrote in an email to district employees that Williams Stapleton has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

Efforts to reach Williams Stapleton by phone at her home and legislative office Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Though she is a member of the interim legislative Investment and Pensions Oversight Committee, she was not present for that committee's Wednesday afternoon meeting at the state Capitol.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement issued Wednesday she is "deeply, deeply troubled by the reports this morning about a law enforcement investigation into Rep. Stapleton. People are innocent until proven otherwise, and I know investigators will follow the facts wherever they lead. I await more information like all New Mexicans.

"But I will say that public confidence in government is seriously damaged by even the appearance of impropriety, or illegal activity, which is why public officials must always hold themselves to the highest possible standard of behavior," she continued. "New Mexicans expect and deserve elected officials who, regardless of party, will put the people before themselves. Anything less violates a sacred public trust and must be dealt with accordingly."

Monica Armenta, a spokeswoman for the Albuquerque school district, referred questions about the issue to the district's lawyer, Luis Robles of Albuquerque.

The search warrant affidavit said efforts to reach officials at Robotics were often unsuccessful and "neither of the websites printed on documents by Robotics were found to be in operation."

The OpenCorporates online database of corporations says Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC dissolved late in 2020, though the affidavit said the school district continued to pay for Robotics materials into May 2021.

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