SANTA FE, NM (KRQE) - Because New Mexico is the only state in the country that doesn’t pay legislators a salary, most state senators and representatives take a financial hit in order to serve in the Legislature.
However, thanks to plum contracts paid by taxpayers, a small group of legislators, who all work in the field of education, do not have to make that financial sacrifice.
But, according to a Larry Barker investigation, one of those legislators -- Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton , D-Albuquerque -- who was supposed to take unpaid leave from her taxpayer-funded job, instead has received tens of thousands of dollars in salary to which she was not entitled.
New Mexico’s Constitution states that legislators are to be paid per diem for food, lodging and mileage during legislative sessions and for meetings required by legislative committees. But “no other compensation” is allowed, according to the Constitution.
“In a citizen’s legislature, what you are going to get is a cross-section of the community serving in the legislature,” said Professor Tim Krebs, who teaches political science at the University of New Mexico.
For example, Rep. Terry McMillan , R-Las Cruces, is a medical doctor who must put his practice on hold when the Legislature is in session in Santa Fe.
“It’s a significant financial hardship,” McMillan said. “My practice is one that has to be actually completely shuttered when I’m here for sessions.”
The same goes for Rep. Bob Wooley , R-Roswell, whose paychecks from his day job as an oil pipeline inspector are suspended while the legislature is in session.
“It’s a hardship,” Wooley said. “We have to depend on our savings in order to pay our bills. My wife is school teacher. She’s been there quite awhile so she makes decent money, but we have to depend on savings to meet our obligations.”
Sen. Tim Jennings , a Roswell Democrat who serves as president pro-tem of the Senate, makes his living as a rancher.
“We don’t come up here to stay,” he said. “We’re not looking for a livelihood. We’re just looking to come up and do the people’s work and go home.”
But not all of New Mexico’s 112 legislators are in the same boat.
Sen. Pete Campos , D-Las Vegas, receives a taxpayer-funded salary of $411 every day he’s at the Capitol. That’s because Campos’ day job is president of the state-run Luna Community College in Las Vegas, and his employment contract allows him to continue drawing his salary even when he’s off campus on legislative business. Because Luna is a public college, taxpayers foot that bill.
“My duties run 7-24-365,” Campos told News 13. “I deal with my issues whether I’m here, whether I’m in Las Vegas. The intent is to insure that I’m responsible, taking care of my duties back home, and at the same time taking care of the duties and my responsibilities as a member of the state senate.”
Sen. Cynthia Nava , D-Las Cruces, also continued to receive her $140,000 a year salary as superintendent of the Gadsden School District when she took off for weeks at a time to work in the senate. Nava’s contract allowed her to continue to get paid while legislating. She resigned from the Gadsden schools earlier this year.
Sen. Bernadette Sanchez , D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Tim Lewis , R-Rio Rancho, who are both teachers in the Albuquerque Public Schools, also continue to receive their paychecks during legislative sessions thanks to a teachers’ union contract that allows it.
But serving in the legislature isn’t quite as sweet for Sen. Gay Kernan , R-Hobbs, and Representatives Dennis Roch , R-Texico, Thomas Garcia , D-Ocate, and James Smith , R-Sandia Park. They must take unpaid leave from their respective districts when on political business.
And then there’s Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton , D-Albuquerque, the House minority whip.
Stapleton is an administrator with the Albuquerque Public Schools who supervises the district’s vocational programs. According to APS policy, administrators who take political leave must do so on an unpaid basis.
However, News 13’s investigation found that Stapleton has not taken any unpaid leave in the past seven years and has been quietly bilking taxpayers out of tens of thousands of dollars. Stapleton has served in the legislature since 1995, though News 13 only looked at the last seven years.
Since 2005, Stapleton has been away from her job more than 600 days – which amounts to $167,157 worth of unauthorized leave paid for by taxpayers just for her time spent working during legislative sessions.
But that’s not all.
Stapleton also frequently ducked out of her APS duties to take part in legislative meetings and conferences held when the legislature was not in session. And when she routinely jetted off to Dallas, New Orleans, Nashville, Washington D.C., Boston and even Puerto Rico, she received her APS salary while taxpayers paid $75,515 for the trips.
Finally, Stapleton received an additional $117,000 in legislative per diem during those seven years.
Stapleton refused to respond to phone calls or emails requesting comment on the investigation. So News 13 caught up with her at the Capitol during the recent special session.
“I believe you have spoken to my supervisor,” Stapleton said. “I do not wish to speak with you.”
Stapleton denied lying on her time sheets before shutting her office door in a reporter’s face.
Superintendent Winston Brooks, Stapleton’s boss, admitted that the legislator got paid in violation of APS policy and did not put in for unpaid leave.
“I’d probably seek disciplinary action if it were just any employee … (but) these folks are not just walking off the job and disappearing,” Brooks said. “They’re walking off the job – granted they may not have followed the rules, which will now be changed – but they walked off the job to go serve in the legislature.”
After News 13 began asking about Stapleton, Brooks changed the district’s policy so it is consistent with the teachers’ contract. Now, Stapleton can serve in the legislature, receive her day job salary and not be in violation of APS rules.
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