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Monday, November 27, 2006

New Details & New Names Surface In Fed Courthouse Probe; Manny Is Focus; Ex-ABQ Mayor Questioned, Plus: My Bottom Lines For A New Mexico Monday 

Ex-Mayor Schultz
The shadow of public corruption in New Mexico grows longer even as the days grow shorter, with more details emerging on that federal probe of the construction of two courthouses in big Bernalillo county and threatening to make 2007 a replay of 2006, a year we witnessed two corruption trials of ex-Treasurer Robert Vigil.

The latest sensational details came on a quiet Thanksgiving Eve as Mr. & Mrs. New Mexico were making holiday dinner plans, not political ones. KRQE-TV investigative reporter Larry Barker revealed that former ABQ Mayor Ken Schultz, now a lobbyist, has been pulled into the probe--just one of a number of "lobbyists and contractors" whose names will be made public as the investigation proceeds.

Indictments in the case could come in January or February. Sources report that plea bargains are already being hammered out.

The focus of the Feds remains on former NM state senate powerhouse Manny Aragon who resigned (or was forced out, depending on your point of view) from the presidency of NM Highlands University this year. Barker reports the Feds are alleging that then State Senator Manny met with then ABQ Metro Court Administrator Toby Martinez and then Chief Metro Court Judge and now District Court Judge Michael Kavanaugh and promised he could get the money for the construction of the new metro courthouse. That, according to the TV report, set off a chain of events in which Aragon and Martinez allegedly took "bribes and kickbacks."

The full TV report is here. It may take a moment to load.

Former Mayor Schultz, 66, saw his name surface as the station quoted insiders as saying he was a lobbyist for one of the contractors who worked on the courthouse and that the FBI taped undercover video of Schultz as part of its investigation. The report said the politico turned lobbyist accepted "tens of thousands" of dollars in cash. An attorney for Schultz said his client did nothing wrong and is only a witness in the investigation.

Longtimers will recall that Manny Aragon served with then Mayor Schultz as a top city attorney when Schultz manned ABQ City Hall from 1985-89. In fact, Aragon became a focal point in Schultz's unsuccessful bid for re-election as he faced criticism of the state senator's dual role.

MOVING ON MANNY
Manny Aragon
It appears obvious from Barker's report that administrator Toby Martinez would be the chief witness against Aragon, along perhaps with Judge Kavanaugh who, according to Barker's sources, is not suspected as a bribe-taker. Whether he is susceptible to other charges remains unanswered.

While the charges against Aragon are sensational, so were those against Vigil and they also involved video tape. Still, federal prosecutors were unable to secure a guilty verdict at the first Vigil trial and at his retrial managed only a conviction on one count of several dozen.

The insiders and Alligators say Aragon, who has already said that a $50,000 payment he received in connection with the courthouse case, was a "consulting" fee, can be expected to fight just as hard as Robert Vigil and that they would be surprised if he copped a plea.

A trial could come in mid or late 07'. That will be bad timing for Big Bill and his presidential campaign. Even though he was not governor when the courthouse caper allegedly came down, he has long been associated with Aragon politically; a relationship that could give his foes some mileage.

THE BANE OF BEN

Manny Aragon isn't the only prominent name associated with the NM Legislature that is under the gun. What about those charges of abuse in a state low income housing program and that have dragged the name of State House Speaker Ben Lujan into the muck? Surely, it's one reason why State Rep. Kenny Martinez has somewhat boldly refused to rule out a challenge to the Speaker when the Dems caucus in mid-December. Martinez, as we have blogged previously, does not appear to have the votes to upset 70 year old Ben, but the housing abuse story weakened the leader at a key moment.

Aragon is gone. Ben Lujan is feeling heat. Big Bill will soon be looking for a new hill to climb. Like wax from a candle, power will start to slowly drip down. To whom? Stay tuned.

MY BOTTOM LINES

A reader writes regarding the ongoing speculation on whether GOP U.S. Senator Pete Domenici will seek a seventh term in 08': "As of September 2006, he's raised $605,872. He gave away $374,792. He has $264,271 on hand. When does the fund raising start?"

He has time. At this point in the cycle Jeff Bingaman, re-elected to the Senate this month, had not raised much of his campaign money either. Both senators are so tapped in that fundraising can be started quickly. Still, it is a good clue to watch for as we go forward...Meanwhile, here is some fun stuff I did with KOB-TV and reporter Stuart Dyson over the long holiday weekend as we handicapped the question: What if Pete retires? (Thanks to Todd Dukart for putting this together for the station's Web site.)...

100,000 by 2010. That's the population prediction for Las Cruces. And get this. Dona Ana county is headed for 200,000 by that time. Talk is already circulating there about forming a metro government by combining the functions of the city and county. The notion would probably be fought hard by rural residents as it has been in the big ABQ metro, but government services are much more advanced here than in Dona Ana. Like the old days in ABQ, the city government of Cruces is seen as more "professional" while the county government is more prone to, shall we say, "missteps."...

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2006
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