New Mexico state Rep. Stapleton under criminal investigation

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Jul. 29—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 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.

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

No charges have been filed against Williams Stapleton, who is listed as 63 in the affidavit. Albuquerque attorney Luis Robles, who represents the school district, said the district placed her on administrative leave around 7 a.m. Wednesday.

According to a search 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 to the district for years. The affidavit outlined an elaborate and yearslong scheme in which Williams Stapleton was able to be involved with the procurement of a contract with the company and approve invoices for payments. The affidavit also stated she, companies she owns and nonprofits with which she is involved received money from Robotics Learning.

The affidavit also noted Williams Stapleton's position in the Legislature, questioning whether some of her legislative initiatives on technology and web-based programs represented a conflict of interest. That has remained an issue with members of the state's so-called citizen Legislature, where lawmakers don't earn a salary and vote on bills that might directly impact the industry they work in, be it education, ranching or 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 also provided "sole source justification" for continuing to procure Robotics' services and interjected on behalf of the company when its contract appeared to be in jeopardy, the affidavit said.

Rennette Apodaca, who heads the district's procurement and accounts payable department, first questioned the irregularities in 2018 after receiving an invoice incorrectly listed as a purchase order from Robotics Learning for a teacher training product called CyberQuest.

Subsequent searches by Apodaca raised questions about Robotics' history, address and practices. She discovered that although the company listed a post office box in Albuquerque, it is not registered or licensed to conduct business in New Mexico.

The 32-page affidavit describes in great detail irregularities in forms submitted by Robotics for payment by APS, the state's largest school district. It outlined 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.

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.

Robotics CEO Joseph F. Johnson was listed as president of the two foundations, while Williams Stapleton was the registered agent for both, the affidavit said.

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

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

In a letter posted on the APS website, Elder acknowledged failures within APS processes.

"Our previous system did not establish adequate controls over this employee," he wrote. "The internal processes failed to stop this fraud. For this, I apologize to you and the public. Most of all, I apologize to our students and their families. I am deeply sorry for the harm done as a result of this."

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 cashing or depositing checks totaling $90,000. Similar events also were recorded last year.

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 dissolved in late 2020, though the affidavit says the school district continued to pay for Robotics material into May 2021.

Legislative reaction

An outspoken and often animated lawmaker, Williams Stapleton, a former teacher, has long advocated for funding and programs for public school students, minorities and impoverished New Mexicans.

The first Black woman elected to the state Legislature, she sponsored a successful measure during this year's regular legislative session prohibiting discriminatory practices in schools against students based on their hairstyles or headwear.

Lawmakers from both major parties reacted to news of the investigation with surprise, though some key leadership figures did not return calls seeking comment.

"We are shocked and dismayed by the deeply troubling allegations against Rep. Stapleton," Egolf and other members of the House Democratic leadership said in a statement issued Wednesday.

"We have counted her as a valued colleague and have never seen any instances of impropriety or criminal behavior in her work serving in the House, but New Mexicans deserve to know that their elected officials hold the highest ethical standards and are free of corruption," the statement said. "We will fully cooperate with investigating authorities and will closely monitor the situation as the facts come out regarding these allegations."

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, called the allegations "troubling," though he added, "I have not seen all the documents and have not read all the allegations, but legislators are held to — and should be held to — very high standards. Any breaches of conduct, if there were any breaches, are concerning."

Reached by phone, Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, said, "I don't know what to say except I'm sad."

Neither Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, nor Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, returned calls seeking comment.

A Senate spokesman said no leaders in the Senate would comment.

In a statement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she was "deeply, deeply troubled by the reports [Wednesday] 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," she continued. "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."

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