Embattled House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton resigned from her position in the state legislature amid state and federal investigations into alleged corruption related to her role in Albuquerque Public Schools. Earlier this week, state investigators raided Williams Stapleton’s house and Friday the Albuquerque Journal reported APS received a federal grand jury subpoena. By Friday afternoon, House Democrat leadership announced that Williams Stapleton had resigned. “Given the weight of the allegations against Rep. Stapleton and the ongoing investigation, her resignation from the House is appropriate and in the best interest of the Legislature and the state,” Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, and House Majority Caucus Chair D. Wonda Johnson said. “There is important work to be done for the people of New Mexico, and House Democrats and our strong leadership team will continue to remain focused on serving our constituents and moving our great state forward.”
The state investigation included allegations of “racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickbacks and violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.”
The state search warrants said that businesses and charities operated by Williams Stapleton received nearly $1 million from Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC, a Washington D.C.-based company that has contracts with Albuquerque Public Schools.
State investigators served search warrants at the Albuquerque home of House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton according to multiple media reports. The Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican and other outlets reported the warrants from the Attorney General’s office were in regard to investigations into ties to Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC, a Washington D.C.-based company that has had a contract with Albuquerque Public Schools for over a decade. The investigation includes allegations of “racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickbacks and violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.” The Journal reported the search warrants said businesses and charities operated by Williams Stapleton received more than $950,000 from the company since 2012. Williams Stapleton is the career and technical education director for the school district, which is the largest in the state.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed two companion bills into law on Monday that will protect against discrimination for natural hair, hairstyles or cultural or religious headdress in schools and workplaces. The signings came amid a flurry of bill-signings, where the governor signed over 50 pieces of legislation on Monday, days before the deadline to make a decision on legislation. HB 29 and SB 80 passed during the legislative session and received wide bipartisan support. Both bills passed both chambers unanimously. The companion bills add a section to the New Mexico Public School Code and Charter School Act to prohibit discrimination against students based on their race or culture with respect to their hair, hairstyle or headdress.
It took members of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee about four hours Friday to lay out the rules for how the House of Representatives will run this year’s legislative session. But it only took 90 minutes for Republicans and Democrats to accuse each other of launching attacks.
The final 11-5 vote went along party lines, with Democrats voting to approve House Rule 1 and Republicans voting against it. The rules set up new procedures for working virtually in the age of COVID-19. The conflict began when Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, questioned why Democrats want to require everyone participating in House floor debates to communicate via Zoom on computers, even if they are sitting in their chairs on the floor.
Townsend said it was because the majority party is concerned about viewers at home watching the event and seeing Republicans on-site in the Capitol debating while Democrats take part virtually from their offices or homes — which is what happened, to a large degree, during last year’s brief special sessions. “The majority is hesitant for the public to see the optics of the minority on the House floor doing what they were elected to do and the other side of the chamber empty,” Townsend said.
Albuquerque resident Kyana Sanchez said a teacher last year told her that her box braids might be a health code violation. Rio Rancho resident Niara Johnson said she has been petted, as if she were an animal. These were just a few of the personal stories that a group of African-American women who have formed the Central Organizing Committee for the CROWN Act in New Mexico told NM Political Report last week. The Central Organizing Committee gathered, through an online platform, for an organizational meeting as part of the group’s planning for a bill that would address discrimination of Black hair and hairstyles. The CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, is a national effort to pass legislation in all 50 states.
On Thursday, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said racism is a “public health emergency” and that she would make examining government policies with institutionalized racism in mind “the center of my administration.”
She announced the formation of the Council for Racial Justice, which will be comprised of several African American community leaders, and she will appoint a racial justice czar. The council will include state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a Democrat from Albuquerque, NM Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs Director Alexandria Taylor and the Reverend Donna Maria Davis of the Grant Chapel AME Church, along with others. Lujan Grisham said during the live press conference that the nation has to “own what slavery did.”
“Until we own that sin…that disgrace, we don’t have the opportunity to move forward,” Lujan Grishan said. The press conference came after recent events that have gripped the nation. Video showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on an African American man, George Floyd, for nearly nine minutes, killing him.
A Republican lawmaker who often challenges legislation and decisions by Democrats said he was somewhat happy when an amended version of his resolution calling for more transparency in how lawmakers’ votes are recorded won bipartisan support Thursday.
House Resolution 1, introduced by Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, would require the New Mexico House of Representatives to publish a record of legislators who make or vote on a motion to table a bill.
In most cases, a motion to table a bill means it quietly dies in committee while a legislative session plays out, without ever getting further consideration. While those tabling votes are recorded in committee hearings, they do not go into the official House of Representatives record and cannot be found on the legislative website.
“The people of New Mexico expect ethical transparency,” Townsend told the committee members. “This is just one more step … in making our processes much more transparent to the public.” Though all but one member of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee voted to endorse HR 1, the action came with a price: An amendment would exclude two committees from having to participate in the process.
Last week marked the first time Lee Moquino had delivered an invocation before the state House of Representatives. It might have been his last. In fact, Moquino may be among the last members of the public and the faith community to kick off each House session with a prayer. House Speaker Brian Egolf has decided to do away with the long-standing practice of asking clergy and others to give the invocation; instead, state representatives will provide the daily prayer on the House floor during the legislative session. The change came soon after Moquino’s invocation, delivered in English and Tewa, in which he told lawmakers they were standing in “occupied indigenous space” and that Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico should be protected from oil and gas drilling and other disturbances.
For years many educators, public education supporters and teacher union representatives have said New Mexico’s teacher evaluation system is punitive and unfair. But immediately after taking office in early January, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order requiring the Public Education Department to retool that system. On Monday night, the House of Representatives took a step toward making that goal a reality when it voted 52-14 to give a “do pass” recommendation to House Bill 212, which would rework measures currently in place. While some proposed changes seem cosmetic, such as having four different evaluation levels rather than the current five, defining the best teachers as “distinguished” rather than “exemplary,” others are more significant. For example, House Bill 212 reduces the percentage of student achievement scores used in the ratings, to 15 percent from 35 percent.
ByAndrew Oxford and Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican |
Brian Egolf, speaker of the Democrat-controlled state House of Representatives, says the body is moving legislation faster than ever, clearing the way for reform of every level of state government. The House minority leader, Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, says Egolf doesn’t ask for input or collaboration. He simply reveals what’s coming and how it’s going to play out, Townsend said. Welcome to the halfway point of this year’s 60-day legislative session. Proceedings in the House often are angry and combative, as outnumbered Republicans say their side is being ignored or steamrolled.