What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Former State Senator Manny Aragón, D, of Valencia and Bernalillo Counties’ District 14, South Valley was sentenced to five years and seven months in federal prison for his part in skimming $4.3 million from the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse construction.
Seen here before the Metropolitan Courthouse with one of his attorneys, Ray Twohig, leaving the Federal Courthouse, Aragón was ordered to pay $750,000 in fines and to additionally pay restitution on $1.5 million to be shared with his co conspirators.
The sentencing hearing lasted three and a half hours before Federal District Judge William P. Johnson.
Aragón refused to make a comment or answer any questions posed by members of the assembled media.
Two years ago, I wrote about the arraignments of four of the eventual seven people charged and all plead guilty in the conspiracy.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
United States Attorney Greg Fouratt, center, speaking before the Pete V. Domenici Federal courthouse across the street for the edifice of the corruption, said the "the era of picking the taxpayers' pockets is over."
The amount of money illegally diverted was more than $4 million, according to Fouratt’s statement on the courthouse steps.
Listen to Fouratt talk with the press.
So why is restitution for the conspirators limited to $1.9 million? Where did the other $2 million go?
There are some lingering questions. Several other large public construction projects with cost overruns were allegedly under investigation three years ago, including the Bernalillo County District Courthouse, the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, and the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum that have now evaporated into the ether. We don’t know that there was wrongdoing in those projects. There were rumblings that there were active investigations and possibly grand juries looking into the matter. Several people who have pleaded guilty in the Metropolitan Courthouse case were involved in those construction projects as well. There has not been a public accounting of them.
Grand juries are supposed to be secret. There were leaks and implications about who might be under investigation. Once information leaks there should be an announcement saying what, if anything came of the investigation. It does not require a lot of detail. However, if the grand jury presented a "no bill," meaning they did not find probable cause to believe, either there was a crime committed, or the person investigated had probably committed the crime, it would be good to clear the rumor generated by leaks.
I had three distinct encounters with Aragón over the years:
Aragón represented a woman whom I arrested for a 1983, Driving While Intoxicated and related charges. His cross-examination of me was probably the second harshest attack I had from an attorney.
The toughest cross-examination was from ACLU Chief Trial Attorney, William Kunstler, right.
I understood the difference between Kunstler’s tough and Aragón’s bullying. Due to the lessons learned in preparation for Kunstler, Aragón was easy. His tactic was to try to confuse me with rapid fire hypothetical questions which changed slightly and then ask if the differences changed my answers as they applied to his client, who when she took the stand agreed with every charge I made against heard including the breath alcohol read out of .126 percent.
Aragón did not irritate me as much as he irritated Metropolitan Court Judge Burton C. Cosgrove. The judge got to a point where he suspended the hearing momentarily to get a tape recorder threatening Aragón with a disciplinary complaint before the State Bar. Ultimately the client was convicted. The case was appealed in District Court before Judge Richard Traub. Aragón did not handle the appeal. I testified and was cross-examination with little fan fare. The woman under her own direct examination admitted to having taken the breath test and observing the machines indication as .12%. She said she felt that she should not be found guilty because, “the officer had been rude to her.”
Traub dismissed the case. I won’t say the fix was in, but there was no evidence presented, even from her testimony, which would have lead to anything but a conviction.
Then Albuquerque Mayor Ken Schultz, appointed Aragón's law partner, Jim Foley as City Attorney. The office required approval of the City Council. Aragón was made Chief Trial Attorney. Foley seemed to be a figurehead and Aragón appeared to run the office. The title “Chief Trial Attorney” meant little, as Aragón never made it into a courtroom representing the city.
In 1986, as President of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, I attended a couple of meetings held with Aragón, about the settlement of a lawsuit which alleged an officer, represented by the APOA, had used excessive force. The topic of discussion centered on how the settlement figure had been leaked to the Albuquerque Journal. Concerns expressed at these meetings were the impetus to the department's Internal Self Evaluation Task Force. The task force led to the creation of an Independent Review Officer and years later was expanded to become the Police Oversight Commission. Aragón told me to warn the APOA attorney that City deals with the union were a thing of the past, that there, “was a new Sheriff in town.” My response was that I was handling the case for the union’s interest, not our lawyer.
The APOA membership voted that I not have any dealing with Aragón, for they adamantly disliked and distrusted him. I explained that the APOA did not get to decide for the city as to whom they sent to the table. I defied my membership’s will with the promises that I would never give Aragón anything that the city would not have gotten on their own without him and he would not enjoy dealing with me. He met one more time and I never saw him in that capacity again.
I organized and moderated a Police Labor Seminar in 1992 for the New Mexico State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. I invited State Senate President Pro Tem Aragón as a speaker because he had sponsored a Senate Bill on statewide collective bargaining for state, county and municipal workers that session. He’d been quoted in the Sunday February 26, 1989, Albuquerque Journal, that, during debate on the bill, he found the City of Albuquerque's Labor-Management Relations Ordinance was, "one of the most poorly written documents I've ever seen."
After lunch, the prosecution team led by Fouratt and accompanied by Assistant U.S. Attorneys including Paula Burnett, returned to court to sentence one of Aragón’s co-defendants.
This is co-defendant Raul Parra, above right with his attorney Robert Gorence on their way to court with the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse behind them.
Parra, left, an audio-visual contractor, filed false and inflated invoices where much of the illegally diverted funds were generated, and he was sentenced to 45 months and ordered to pay $611,000 in restitution.
The other co-defendants: former Albuquerque Mayor Schultz, architect Marc Schiff, then construction manager, Michael Murphy, electronics subcontractor Manuel Guara, former Metropolitan Court Administrator Toby Martinez and his wife Sandra Mata Martinez, all pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentence.