By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. – A conviction for gun smuggling isn’t stopping a former Columbus mayor from getting nearly $17,000 a year in taxpayer-funded pension money, New Mexico Watchdog has learned.
The former mayor, Eddie Espinoza, was released from federal prison in late November three years early from a four-year sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy, trafficking in firearms and making false statements while purchasing firearms. Because Espinoza held a job with the state of New Mexico, he gets $1,387.89 each month from the Public Employees Retirement Association.
“As a defined benefit plan, PERA will pay this monthly amount for the retiree’s lifetime,” Susan Pittard, chief of staff-general counsel at PERA, said in an email Tuesday to New Mexico Watchdog.
Pittard said confidentiality statutes forbid PERA from disclosing what Espinoza did with the state and for how long.
Efforts by New Mexico Watchdog to contact Espinoza were unsuccessful.
So how does a convicted felon keep his taxpayer-funded pension?
For the same reason former state Senate Pro Tem Manny Aragon, who was also released early from prison this month, does.
In 2012, the New Mexico Legislature passed an anti-corruption bill 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 the law is not retroactive, so the pensions for Aragon and Espinoza were not affected.
Espinoza’s pension works out to $16,654.68 per year. Aragon receives $27,311 per year in his legislative pension — more than $204,000 since 2005.
As part of his sentencing for skimming millions in an Albuquerque courthouse construction project, Aragon pays at least $1,000 a month in restitution, using his taxpayer-funded pension to satisfy the debt. Aragon and the co-defendants, as of June, had an outstanding balance of $426,000, according to the Albuquerque Journal,
New Mexico Watchdog could not find any restitution requirements in Espinoza’s case.
State Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque worked five years for an anti-corruption bill, which Gov. Susana Martinez signed into law in 2012, one year after Espinoza pleaded guilty.
Payne told New Mexico Watchdog that while Aragon and Espinoza are off the hook, he hopes the measure will keep public officials from breaking the law.
“That’s the whole intent of the law,” Payne said. “I don’t think many people know that the law is on the books now. But I think that’s a pretty potent deterrent, if you’re a public office-holder and, let’s say, you’ve got a 25-year pension at stake.”
In 2011, agents from the U.S. and Mexico descended on Columbus, a town of fewer than 2,000 on the southwest edge of the state, and charged 11 people with smuggling guns into Mexico. According to an indictment, the defendants bought guns favored by Mexican drug cartels, including 40 AK-47-type pistols.
In addition to then-mayor Espinoza, a Columbus village trustee and the chief of police pleaded guilty.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski