This report includes reporting from The Paper.’s staff and the Associated Press.
Investigators from the Attorney General’s Office served search warrants on the home and businesses of Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton and her employer, the Albuquerque Public Schools, on Wednesday morning as part of an investigation into Williams Stapleton’s financial relationship and possible kickback scheme with a vendor for APS that has been paid millions of dollars.
The criminal investigation focuses on alleged racketeering, money laundering, illegal kickbacks and possible violations of a law governing the conduct of state lawmakers.
No charges have been filed against Williams Stapleton.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, investigators found bank records showing businesses and charities Williams Stapleton either owns or has an interest in receiving more than $950,000 from Washington, D.C.-based Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC. Some of the records go as far back as 2012. Robotics Learning LLC has programs that provide students in technical education programs with quizzes and trains teachers in technical and vocational education.
Attorney General Hector Balderas received a request for an investigation by APS Superintendent Scott Elder who sent the AG a letter on April 19 of this year outlining concerns that APS’ procurement division found with Robotics and Williams Stapleton’s relationship.
In an email to staff, Elder addressed the failure of the school district’s procurement review process. “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’m deeply sorry for the harm done as a result of this.”
The investigation came at the request of Elder, who wrote to the state attorney general’s office in April, saying he suspected Stapleton was violating state law because of her dealings with a company that provides computer software to the district.
Investigators and school district officials questioned the existence of the company and found it curious that although its official address was in Washington, D.C., it had no physical presence and a post office box in New Mexico. Stapleton intervened when the company’s contract with the school district appeared to be in jeopardy, providing documentation and acting as a go-between, according to a search warrant affidavit.
Williams Stapleton is House Majority Leader and longest-serving Democratic House member. She is also a longtime employee of APS, where she is the Coordinator and Director of Career and Technical Education at APS.
In that role, she allegedly authorized sole-source contracts and expenditures for online robotics education from a company connected to her and a member of her family. Here are the allegations as we understand them today:
- For more than a decade, Williams Stapleton used her position in APS to authorize a sole-source contract with Robotics Learning LLC to provide online robotics education. Stapleton told the district that Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC. provided a unique interactive program called CyberQuest as justification for sole source contracting, according to a search warrant affidavit released Wednesday. The district said the program appeared to be a standardized online quiz that wasn’t used by many students.
- Since 2006, Robotics Learning LLC billed approximately $5.4 million to APS, which Williams Stapleton approved.
- In 2018 an internal APS contract review discovered discrepancies and put the robotics teaching program out to bid. The company won the bid and continued working, but for a lower fee.
- Many of the payments were routed to a post office box which Williams Stapleton had access to and in some cases she was observed picking up payments made out to the company.
- Over the course of the investigation, financial records found that the company had depositied more than $300,000 into bank accounts for A Taste of the Caribbean, a UNM-area restaurant operated by Williams Stapleton and her husband.
- The company also paid more than $279,000 to a consulting company established in Williams Stapleton’s name but there is no record of it ever registering as a legal business with the state.
- The company also routed funds to non-profits operated by the company’s CEO where Williams Stapleton served as secretary and treasurer. Funds from those non-profits also ended up in the representative’s personal bank accounts and in an off-shore account in the Caribbean where Williams Stapleton has connections.
- At some point, the company hired the representative’s son as a consultant but there is no indication that he had experience or expertise in robotics or education.
- During the investigation, agents obtained video evidence showing Williams Stapleton depositing checks from APS to the company.
Armed agents of the attorney general and federal IRS were seen outside Williams Stapleton’s home in Southeast Heights and at her UNM-area Caribbean restaurant Wednesday.
Political Reaction Swift
Within minutes of the first news alerts, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement condemning corruption by any politician of any party:
“I am 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. 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.”
Lujan Grisham’s swift condemnation seemed to give permission for other members of the Democratic Party to follow suit.
In a joint statement, other House Democratic leaders including Speaker Brian Egolf, Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos and Caucus Chairwoman Doreen Wonda Johnson said they have counted Stapleton “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.”
Egolf later announced that he had referred the matter to an interim House ethics committee to begin the legislature’s own investigation that could result in censure or expulsion from the chamber.
The state Republican Party said the allegations must be taken seriously and, if proven true, “they are a disturbing violation of the sacred public trust.”