Manny Aragon’s expected release from federal prison is only a year away. Will he return to an active role with the Democratic Party of New Mexico? Will he return a rehabilitated man and work to undo the culture of corruption he helped spread? Or will he maintain his code of criminal defiance and continue to protect dirty politicians he could help expose and bring to justice?
Aragon, once one of the New Mexico’s top Democrats as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, was sentenced in 2009 to 5 1/2 years in prison for his leadership role in a corruption case that swept up Albuquerque’s former mayor, the administrator of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court and politically connected contractors. He pleaded guilty to three federal felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud in a scheme to steal $4.4 million from construction funds for the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse.
Aragon served 29 years in the New Mexico Senate and rose to be perhaps the most powerful man in the chamber’s history. He graduated from the University of New Mexico Law School and was a friend of one of its former deans. But as a convicted felon, Aragon cannot even vote. Nor will he ever again practice law. He has been disbarred by both the New Mexico Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States.
It was widely believed that the Metropolitan Courthouse caper was not Aragon’s first and only dirty deal, just the first time he got caught. Unlike several of his co-conspirators, he refused to cooperate with investigators, even when it may have shortened his prison sentence. Investigators believed he had information about other instances of political corruption. The Department of Justice continued to investigate other construction projects which may have been victim to similar frauds. But Aragon’s plea agreement did not require him to do more than admit to the basic facts in the charges to which he pleaded guilty. Aragon let it be known he would take his secrets to prison and never assisted any law enforcement agency in ferreting out other criminal conspiracies.
According to a law enforcement source who could not speak on the record, Aragon has maintained his code of silence during his prison term.
U.S. Bureau of Prison records show Aragon’s projected release from custody on August 17, 2013. He has been housed at the federal maximum security facility in Florence, Colorado since June 2009. New Mexico Watchdog has been informed that Aragon’s time in prison has been uneventful, and he has been moved outside the walls to the less restrictive camp facility. Aragon will be released short of his full 5 1/2 years, presumably due to credits earned during imprisonment and other reductions.
According to Elizabeth Martinez, spokesperson for the United States Attorney for New Mexico, in addition to his period of incarceration, Aragon’s total monetary “exposure” for his crime amounted to $1,940,642.32, “depending on how much his co-conspirators pay towards the joint and several liability.” That breaks down as follows: A fine of $87,316.41; restitution for which he was individually responsible in the amount of $649,272.32; and restitution on which he was jointly and severally liable, along with his co-conspirators, in the amount of $541,370.00. In addition to the restitution and fines, Aragon forfeited the contents of an investment account he maintained at Financial Network Investment Corporation into which he had deposited tainted funds. The final order of forfeiture for this account was in the amount of $662,683.59. This money was obtained immediately after the forfeiture order was entered.
Aragon has been making regular payments on the restitution and fines, with interest accruing on the unpaid balance. New Mexico Watchdog has asked Martinez to specify the monthly payments and accured interest. Her answer was not available before publication.
Aragon did not forfeit the house and acreage he owns in Albuquerque’s South Valley. In December 2009, New Mexico Watchdog released never-before-seen video of the inside of what is commonly called “Manny’s Castle.”
New Mexico Watchdog report: Manny’s Castle, a look inside Manny Aragon’s strange, unfinished South Valley manor.
Democrats Not Eager To Talk About Aragon
New Mexico Watchdog asked New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman Javier Gonzales
whether, as chairman, he welcomes Mr. Aragon’s returning to involvement with the Democratic Party and what role he saw for him in politics and public affairs. Mr. Gonzales did not return our e-mail and telephone call to party offices posing those questions. A similar call to Scott Forrester, the Democrats’ Executive Director, has not been returned.
We also asked this of Mr. Gonzales:
As you may know, Mr. Aragon refused to cooperate with investigations of other crimes by public officials. Do you encourage him to drop his code of silence and would you encourage him to sit down with state and federal law enforcement agencies and offer to answer their questions and provide what assistance he can in tackling political corruption in New Mexico?
Mr. Gonzales did not respond to the question.
Manny Aragon received a surprising amount of support from active Democratic politicians even after his conviction. Sitting legislators sent letters to the sentencing judge in support of Aragon, lauding his public life, and asking for leniency. Two of the Democratic legislators who continued to support Aragon after his conviction were Henry “Kiki” Saavedra of Albuquerque, Chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, and Timothy Jennings of Roswell. As President Pro Tempore, Jennings now holds the position in the Senate Manny Aragon held, and abused, for many years.
We were able to reach Rep. Saavedra by telephone. As for Aragon’s getting involved again in politics, he said, “I can’t answer that. I don’t like to say. He’s paid society, he’s served his time. When he gets out, people ought to welcome him to start a life.”
We asked Saavedra if he would encourage Aragon as part of his new life to talk with law federal and state law enforcement and share what he knows about political corruption in New Mexico. Saavedra answered, “I don’t encourage nobody. Thank you for calling. Bye.” [click]
Our call to Senator Jennings was not returned before publication.
UPDATE: Senator Jennings did return our call with apologies for the delay. As for cooperating now with law enforcement, Jennings says, “I would encourage him to do that. For him to go through all he’s been through, I think he should tell us whatever else he knows. He needs to step up and help us weed out the bad apples. I think the majority of the Senate feels this way.”
Jennings went so far as to say that Aragon has “an obligation” to talk with law enforcement about any knowledge he may have of political corruption in New Mexico.
As for Aragon’s future, Jennings repeated what he has said before that Aragon “did a lot I am proud of and a lot I am not. Somewhere along the line he got twisted. There is a place for Manny. It will be difficult to find, but there is a place.” Jennings added that he was not sure that politics was that place.
We also called Alan B. Armijo, former Albuquerque City Councilor and Bernalillo County Commissioner. Democrat Armijo was one of the people reported to have attended a large going away party for Aragon at a restaurant in Albuquerque’s Old Town. We left a message at his home that we would like his thoughts on Aragon getting involved again in politics and public affairs. Armijo did not return our call.
Aragon Owes It To NM to Reveal All He Knows About Corruption: NM GOP
We posed the same questions to the Chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, Monty Newman. He sent New Mexico Watchdog this e-mail:
“Former State Senate leader Manny Aragon was put in a position of power by New Mexicans, and he owes it to the people of New Mexico to break the code of silence he has been hiding behind. New Mexico has been known as a state of corruption in government for too long, and it is time for that to end. In order to increase accountability and transparency, those who have been caught in such scandals should disclose hidden information. Elected officials must be held to a higher standard, and New Mexicans deserve better than the corruption that has marred our state in the past.”
Aragon has granted no interviews during his time in jail. We don’t know if a rehabilitated Manny Aragon will return to Albuquerque ready to unburden himself of his insider’s knowledge of the state’s culture of corruption. Or he may return an unreformed “a man of honor,” as he has been called by political allies, a man who places loyalty to fellow corrupt politicians above his obligations to the people who elected him to office and whose trust he so cruelly betrayed.