By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — Manny Aragon, the former Democratic state Senate leader who had one of the most spectacular falls from grace in New Mexico political history, is out a Colorado federal prison.
There are reports that the 66-year-old Aragon his heading back to the Albuquerque area after his release Thursday. He is expected to live in a halfway house, but his attorney, Ray Twohig, has refused to comment.
An undisputed power broker in the Legislature, Aragon rose from poverty to serve for 30 years in the Senate, where he eventually became the Senate Pro Tem. After his time in the Roundhouse, Aragon was president of New Mexico Highlands University.
“Manny knew how to get things done,” said former Republican state Rep. Dan Foley, who worked on the opposite side of Aragon for six years. “Whether it was cutting a deal or hiring the right person or giving the right sound bite, he was a no-nonsense, hard-nosed ballplayer.”
But it all fell apart amid allegations linked to a money-skimming scandal.
In 2008, Aragon pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges for his role in a scheme to defraud the state out of nearly $4.4 million in building the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque.
Aragon was fined $750,000 and ordered to pay $649,000 in restitution.
During the trial, prosecutors said the money Aragon pocketed came from state capital outlay dollars and, as a senator, Aragon made sure the courthouse project had enough money assigned to construction to pay him and other co-conspirators.
Aragon was sentenced to 67 months at the Federal Correction Complex in Florence, Colo., which includes a “super max” facility that houses such inmates as “Unabomber” Ted Kacynski and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.
Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke confirmed to the Albuquerque Journal that Aragon left the facility Thursday, but did not give details about where Aragon was heading.
In August, Burke told New Mexico Watchdog that prisoners are eligible to be released to halfway houses within one year of their scheduled release date. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate locator website, Aragon’s projected release date was May 2, 2014.
Aragon has kept a low profile during his stay, refusing invitations from reporters for interviews.
“As a politician, Manny was right up there at the top when it came to talent and instincts,” said Smith, who served with Aragon in the Roundhouse for 15 years. “He could debate on any issue.”
“I think Manny saw himself as Robin Hood,” Foley said, “someone working for the poor, the downtrodden, the people left behind … But Manny and the people in the scandal, they’re the epitome of what’s wrong with New Mexico. It’s a systemic problem. I don’t look at it as a fall from grace or a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for taxpayers, though.”
Even after his conviction, Aragon prompted controversy, even if it was indirect.
A big going-away party for Aragon in Albuquerque just before he left for prison drew plenty of criticism. It wasn’t because the party was thrown, but because it was attended by local state and national political figures that included Roundhouse colleagues, local officeholders, lobbyists, attorneys, judges and even a former ambassador.
Then there’s the fact that, despite his conviction, Aragon is receiving a taxpayer-funded pension.
According to Associated Press, Aragon receives $27,311 per year, which totals more than $204,000 since 2005.
The Legislature has since passed a law forcing public officials to forfeit at least part or all of their pay and pensions should they be convicted of felonies connected to their duties in office, but it was not retroactive to cases such as Aragon’s.
Shortly before the courthouse fraud allegations surfaced, a library at the Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque was named after Aragon. Despite controversy and embarrassment, the library still bears his name.
“I hope he can fade into seclusion or wherever he ends up and have a more tranquil life,” Smith said.
“He committed a crime and he paid his debt to society,” Foley said. “There are far more important things than politics, and I hope he can find some solace, especially given his age and health issues. I’m sure that living in a halfway house in Albuquerque is not a place Manny wants to be.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski