ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - Thirty years of political power ended with a whimper Tuesdaywhen a federal judge sentenced former state Sen. Manny Aragónto prison for his role in the largest public corruption case instate history.
His sentence: 5 1/2 years in prison as worked out in his pleaagreement last fall plus nearly $2 million in fines andrestitution. This after Aragón admitted his part in usingpadded contracts and bogus invoices to skim more than $4 millionfrom construction of the Bernalillo County MetropolitanCourthouse.
Seven other men including the court administrator, the projectarchitect and a lobbyist-bagman once the mayor of Albuquerque alsohave pleaded guilty in the case. Most of the charges involved mailfraud and conspiracy.
"We're not going to have any comment at this time,"Aragón's attorney said as he and his client left the federalcourthouse.
However the 62-year-old político said plenty inside thecourtroom. In a rambling 20-minute speech, Aragón apologizedwhile painting himself as a "defender of the downtrodden."
He then broke into tears.
U.S. District Judge William "Chip" Johnson wasn't moved. Hehammered Aragón with up to $1.1 million in restitution andfines totaling $750,000.
All but $87,000 of the fines already has been covered with moneyseized from one of Aragón's bank accounts. About half of therestitution is supposed to be paid by former court administratorToby Martinez who, along with his wife, also pleaded guilty in thecase.
"Based on the treachery and the contempt he showed for NewMexico taxpayers and those for whom he was a role model and abeacon of hope, prison is exactly where he belongs," U.S. AttorneyGreg Fouratt said after the sentencing.
Aragón has 60 days to surrender to begin serving hissentence.
"It's a sad day for the state of New Mexico," a cousin, RicardoAragón, said. "It's an unfortunate situation thathappened.
"Manny did do a lot of good while he was in the Senate andworked as a political figure."
Later on Tuesday co-defendant Raul Parra was sentenced to 46months in prison and fines and restitution of $611,000. He was apartner in an engineering firm working on the courthouseaudio-visual system.
That contract was one of the main conduits for the swindle thatwas initially uncovered by a court-appointed accountant assignedwhen a dispute between Parra and a partner broke up thecompany.
"He knew how to handle power."
Prominent state politicians remembered Aragón as a personwho represented the best and the worst of New Mexico politics.
“He knew how to handle power,” former governor DaveCargo told KRQE News 13.
Aragon’s passion and understanding of the legislativeprocess allowed him to move up in state government, Cargo, theRepublican governor from 1967 to 1970 said.
Aragón, a Democrat from Albuquerque's South Valley, beganhis political career as president of the Young Democrats forBernalillo County. He was 27 when first elected state senator in1975. From 1988 to 2001 he held the powerful position of SenatePresident Pro-Tempore.
“Senator Aragón had a knack of seeing things thatcould be, and then not being afraid to go after it,” currentSenate President Tim Jennings said. “What I remember most washis advocacy for the people who least had a voice.”
One of Aragón’s strengths was being an advocate forthe poor.
“He made a huge mistake and he should pay,” Jenningssaid. "But you shouldn’t forget his life as awhole.”
But he also had his weaknesses including past convictions forillegal gambling and drunken driving in 1989, and questionablerelationships and dealings inside and outside the statecapitol.
“He always kind of walked on the edge,” Cargo said.“Not that you knew he was doing anything wrong, but he walkedclose to the edge.
“He’d do a lot of things that were good. It’sa real tragedy that he got caught up in something likethis.”
Downfall began with Senate revolt
In federal court documents Aragon’s attorneys identifiedthe 2001 Senate leadership vote as a turning point. Aragón wasousted from the president pro-tem position when a slim majority ofsenators voted in Sen. Richard Romero.
Aragón felt betrayed and depressed, according to hisattorneys. That was part of the reason he took part in the MetroCourthouse construction scheme that is now sending him to federalprison, according to federal court documents.
He successfully secured the position of Senate Majority Leader,but it was not enough.
In 2004 Aragón resigned from the Senate to become presidentof New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. He resigned twoyears later after pressure from university regents.
The federal investigation into Aragon’s involvement withthe courthouse construction scheme was the reason for hisresignation.
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