Former state Senate President Manny Aragon — one of New Mexico’s most prominent and powerful politicians over the past two decades — pleaded guilty to three felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud.
Prosecutor Jonathon Gerson said a binding agreement included in a plea deal means Aragon will serve 51/2 years in federal prison.
U.S. District Judge James Parker can accept or amend the terms of the agreement at sentencing, which has not yet been set.
The courtroom was packed as Aragon entered his plea. Parker asked Aragon how he pleaded on the three counts.
“Guilty,” Aragon responded each time, flanked by his three lawyers.
When Parker asked if both sides had come to terms, Gerson agreed and told the judge the plea deal “would resolve an enormously complicated proceeding.” Defense attorney Ray Twohig told Parker the deal was in Aragon’s best interest.
“It wasn’t a very happy day for me,” Aragon, 61, told reporters outside the courthouse. He said he was eager “to put this behind us and move forward,” then refused to take additional questions.
Aragon, indicted last year, was accused of pocketing $650,000 in a scheme in which he and four others allegedly bilked the state out of $4.2 million during construction of the Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque.
U.S. Attorney Greg Fouratt characterized the case as a “staggering development that ends the legal and political career of a larger-than-life figure.”
“Whether he was motivated by greed or intoxicated by power, only he knows,” Fouratt said. “He has admitted what the United States has long been prepared to prove: He conspired with others to steal $4.2 million from the taxpayers of New Mexico by bloating construction costs for the metropolitan courthouse.”
Aragon’s case sends a deterrent message to all elected officials in New Mexico, “no matter how many times you’ve been elected or how much power you’ve accumulated,” Fouratt said.
Aragon was Senate president pro tem from 1988 until 2001, when he was ousted when three Democrats joined with Republicans to remove him from the chamber’s top leadership post.
But Aragon reclaimed a leadership job 10 months later when Senate Democrats named him majority floor leader. He left the Senate in mid-2004 to become president of New Mexico Highlands University.
His tenure at the university, like his years as Senate leader, were marked by controversy because of his autocratic style. The school paid Aragon $200,000 to buy out his contract last year.
Three other defendants in the courthouse case — engineer Raul Parra, former court administrator Toby Martinez and his wife, Sandra — entered guilty pleas earlier this week.
That leaves only construction manager Michael Murphy still charged in the case. He has said he is innocent.
Three others — architect Marc Schiff; Ken Schultz, a lobbyist and former Albuquerque mayor; and subcontractor Manuel Guara — pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiracy and one count of mail fraud in the case.
Aragon had faced one count of conspiracy, nine of mail fraud and five of money laundering.
Parra was charged with one count of conspiracy, nine of mail fraud and 12 of money laundering; Toby Martinez faced nine counts of mail fraud and one of conspiracy; and Sandra Martinez was charged with 13 counts of money laundering and one of conspiracy.
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