Friday, March 30, 2007

Our Beleagured Political Legends: A Lawyered Up Pete And Now An Indicted Manny; Complete Coverage, Plus: Senate Gets To Work, And: Sadie's Lament 

Manny Aragon
First, Senator Pete Domenici hires a criminal defense lawyer. Now, former NM Senate leader Manny Aragon is indicted by the feds and charged with stealing $700,000 in connection with the construction of the ABQ Metro Court. Being a political legend just isn't what it used to be.

At a time when they should be basking in glory, Aragon, 60, and Domenici, 74, instead find themselves calling on survival skills first honed in the early 70's in the formative stages of their careers and left to rust as foes faded away. The pair went about amassing power with an outward insouciance, but with an inner fire only rarely revealed. Now, as the song says, "the end is near" and the poignancy of the downfall seeps deeply into your pores, like spring pollen after a warm shower.

Reflections aside, what's next? Will be there more indictments, or is this it? At ABQ CBS affiliate KRQE-TV where I spent part of the afternoon offering analysis on the fallout of the indictments, they were reporting that federal sources said more charges could not be ruled out as the investigation also touched upon the construction of the Bernalillo county District Courthouse. The speculation that has made the rounds these many months had included possible indictments of several prominent lobbyists and maybe even a judge or two. There were some breathing easier Thursday, but they apparently should not completely relax. We’ll see.

Read the indictments and plea bargains here. There's exhaustive mainstream media coverage. Here's the big picture. And here's a piece on the three plea bargains, including that of former ABQ Mayor Ken Schultz. How did it play on TV? Reports are here and here. Don't know all involved? Find out more here.


As for the aforementioned political fallout, most observers I talked with did not think the charges, so widely expected, would do much to take the heat off Domenici or ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson who are embroiled in the U.S. Attorney scandal because of phone calls they made to then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias; phone calls he said were made to pressure him to speed up the Aragon indictment, but which they say were innocent inquiries.

"I think it's a pox on both their houses, both Democrats and Republicans," offered NM TV news dean Dick Knipfing as he and co-anchor Erika Ruiz scurried to deliver the late afternoon story. "Much of the 'oomph' was taken out of the indictments by the controversy preceding them," added the anchor who has been on the state beat since '63.

"No immediate political advantage for anyone," curtly commented longtime NM Republican player and former CBS News reporter Kurt Lohbeck.

"Maybe there's a short term advantage for Pete and Heather, as it shifts the focus to corruption among Democrats, but the U.S. attorney story is not going away," summed up Democratic analyst Harry Pavlides.

One of my legal beagles, after reviewing the indictments, called the Feds case strong. "It's an intricate paper trail case," he said. But we wondered together whether it will be the law or politics that will ultimately decide this case when it goes to a jury.


NM Democratic party chairman Wertheim was quick to link Pete and Heather to the Manny bone, just in case. "If these allegations are true then the individuals should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. I only hope that Pete Domenici's and Heather Wilson's attempted political manipulation of these indictments has not played into the defense attorneys' hands. If these indictments do not lead to convictions, Wilson and Domenici will be to blame." Wertheim spun.

Republicans, who have had a target on Manny's back for decades, celebrated his indictment. "It’s tangible evidence that the cancer of public corruption has existed far too long in New Mexico. As was widely suspected, it involved some elected officials. Today’s actions are long overdue."

That statement came from the party's acting executive director, not party chairman Allen Weh who has been dragged into the Iglesias controversy and could find himself testifying before the Senate Ethics Committee in the months ahead as it investigates Domenici.

Other politicians noted that the Aragon case could be completely settled by this time next year, taking it off the table as an election year issue, but still leaving the Dems with plenty of U.S. Attorney TV attack ads.

Ex-Mayor Schultz
The black humor made the rounds too. "Manny will share a jail cell with Robert. Manny will bring the green, Robert the red," offered one wag pairing Aragon with ex-Treasurer Vigil who was also charged with corruption by the feds and will soon start serving time.

The indictments would have normally been greeted with shock, but because talk of the investigation has been underway for over a year, the announcement, sent out by news release, was anti-climactic. But the amount of the alleged thievery--over $4 million--did get everyone's attention.

Some state senators gathered in Santa Fe for the special session thought the case might provide impetus for ethics reform that died in the regular session, but how pending legislation would have stopped this alleged caper is unclear. (In fact, in an ironic twist, ethics bills were gutted by the Senate in the immediate aftermath of the Aragon indictment. See the story below.)

One of the saddest aspects of Thursday's announcement was the government plea deal with former ABQ Mayor Ken Schultz in which he admitted to taking kickbacks. The city has had a pretty good ethical record over the years and even though Schultz was mayor long ago (1985-89), his admitted guilt cast a shadow over Government Center. Schultz, now a Republican, was a Democrat when he started out as a member of the ABQ City Council, garnering a reputation as a populist. He used his ownership of a Buick dealership to build name ID through omnipresent TV commercials and to win the mayor's office. The former Marine, approaching 70, went into lobbying after finishing a stint as mayor during which he earned kudos for advancing the city economically, but it will be this first felony guilty plea by any city mayor and whatever sentence Schultz receives that will now be his tainted legacy.


Pete Domenici in '84 presiding intensely as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and energetically bouncing across New Mexico, seemingly owning the state. Manny Aragon in '99 filled with passion for the working man, lording over the floor of the state Senate and delivering yet another stemwinder. Ken Schultz with wife Diane on his arm, smiling ear to ear as they kick-off the first mayor's charity ball in '86. Those are some of the images in my memory as I write to you of these lions of politics. Those images will now be much harder to summon. When I do, instead of warm nostalgia, I will feel loss.


Love is rarely in the air in the competitive atmosphere of the Roundhouse, but we'll settle for compromise, and that's what we got Thursday as the state Senate, on the third try, finally was able to meet and go to work. They even hammered out a compromise on a road bill, saving face for Big Bill who too hastily called the special session. Ethics bills, however, remain a bust. The House will now have to meet to ratify the Senate action on the three bills from the Governor that the Senate approved Thursday. After that, it appears everyone agrees that the lawmakers go home. For good. Finally.


Four year old Sadie Rittenberry, granddaughter of Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, was right at home during one of the recent Senate meetings of the special legislative session that immediately adjourned. In fact, Sadie, daughter of Di daughter Suzanne who lives in Oklahoma, was rumored to have reacted to the Senate action by whispering: "Grandma, they don't play very nice."

No, they do not Sadie, but perhaps if you let them share your sandbox, they can learn...

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