Former high-ranking Democratic legislator in New Mexico pleads not guilty in federal fraud case

Apr 10, 2024, 11:55 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A former high-ranking Democratic legislator in New Mexico has pleaded not guilty to numerous federal charges stemming from a corruption investigation into allegations that millions of dollars meant for educational programs in the state’s largest school district were diverted to businesses and charities in which she had an interest.

Sheryl Williams Stapleton, 66, entered her plea Tuesday during an initial court appearance in Albuquerque. The judge ordered her and a co-defendant released on their own recognizance. They also were ordered to surrender their passports.

A grand jury indicted Williams Stapleton in March on charges that included bribery, mail fraud and money laundering. Those federal charges are on top of money laundering, racketeering and other counts that had been filed in 2021 by state prosecutors. That case is still pending.

A former state House majority leader and an administrator with Albuquerque Public Schools, Williams Stapleton was first elected in 1994. She resigned from the New Mexico House of Representatives two days after search warrants were served at her home during the summer of 2021. The school district also fired her from her role there.

According to the federal indictment, the Albuquerque district had paid more than $3 million to Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based company at the center of both state and federal charges. Most of that money came from federal funds meant for vocational education programs.

Co-defendant Joseph Johnson, 72, is accused of providing blank checks to Stapleton, who in turn wrote around 233 checks totaling $1,152,506 “for her own benefit,” the indictment states.

Johnson, the owner of Robotics Management Learning Systems, also pleaded not guilty to federal charges.

Williams Stapleton, Johnson and their attorneys declined to comment while leaving the courthouse on Tuesday.

If convicted, court documents show the two defendants could be forced to forfeit millions in cash or property connected with the allegations.

New Mexico has witnessed a string of corruption scandals involving high-level public officials over the years. Jail sentences were handed down on convictions against former Democratic state Sen. Phil Griego in 2018 for using his position as a legislator to profit off the sale of a state-owned building and in 2015 against Republican ex-Secretary of State Dianna Duran for using campaign funds to fuel a gambling addiction.

Before that, Democrat Manny Aragon — the former Senate majority leader — was sentenced to federal prison for his role in a kickback scheme in which millions of dollars were stolen from the construction of a courthouse for New Mexico’s busiest judicial district through false and padded invoices. Known for years as the most powerful force in the Legislature, Aragon was released from prison in 2013.

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Former high-ranking Democratic legislator in New Mexico pleads not guilty in federal fraud case