As the 2009 New Mexico Senate is heading toward the finish line on Saturday, former Senate President Manny Aragon is heading to jail to begin a 67-month sentence for skimming money from the construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque. Aragon pleaded guilty last October to three federal felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud. He was sentenced today by U.S. Federal District Court Judge William P. Johnson, who also ordered him to pay $649,000 in restitution and $750,000 in fines. The restitution will apply toward the $750,000 fines. Several other persons were convicted in connection with the Metro Court scandal, including former mayor of Albuquerque Ken Schultz. Among the letters sent to the judge on Aragon's behalf prior to the sentencing were letters from Archbishop Michael Sheehan and President of the Senate Tim Jennings.
Aragon used his power in the senate to obtain capital outlay funds to pay for a large portion of the Metro Court's construction, and he requested more funds than necessary, from which he and others would file false vouchers for fictitious work and pocket the money, often delivered in large bundles of cash. Even prior to the discovery of the kickback scheme, escalating costs for the Metro building caused something of a scandal.
At his peak, Aragon was a gifted politician, with quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a rather unpredictable temperament. He was a member of the 1969 constitutional convention and, like so many of the delegates, went on to serve in elective positions for many years. An attorney and a wealthy man, he was in the state legislature for 29 years but he never forgot his roots in the South Valley of Albuquerque. His attorney Ray Twohig, in arguing for leniency this morning, stressed to the judge some of the legislative legacies for which he is responsible, including the construction of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, dental care for the poor, and closing drive-up liquor windows.
Aragon was given a brief period to get his affairs in order before beginning his sentence.