- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A former leader of the New Mexico Senate was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison Tuesday for his role in a scheme to defraud the state of some $4 million in a courthouse construction project.

Manny Aragon offered a rambling 20-minute speech before breaking into tears at his sentencing hearing Tuesday in federal court in Albuquerque. Once one of New Mexico’s most powerful politicians, the Albuquerque Democrat served in the state Senate for 29 years and had been its president pro tem.

He and seven others were accused of conspiring to use inflated and false invoices to skim public funds meant for construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque. All have pleaded guilty.

Aragon, accused of pocketing $650,000 in the scheme, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and mail fraud. Aside from the prison sentence, he was fined $750,000 and ordered to pay at least $649,000 in restitution.

U.S. Attorney Greg Fouratt said after Tuesday’s hearing that “the era of picking the taxpayers’ pockets is over.”

Aragon expressed sorrow for two of his co-defendants, engineer Raul Parra and architect Marc Schiff, and for the people of New Mexico.

“I apologized to you and to them (New Mexicans) in my letter, and I do this again,” he told U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson, referring to a letter of apology he sent the court.

Aragon spoke in court about his early years and his life in politics before breaking down while talking about the “punishment” of losing his jobs as Senate president and president of New Mexico Highlands University.

Neither he nor his attorneys commented to reporters after the hearing.

The degree of Aragon’s punishment had been fodder for debate for weeks as dozens of New Mexicans wrote letters to the judge to share their views. Those messages poured in during the past week after media reports that several notable New Mexicans, including Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan and former University of New Mexico athletic director Rudy Davalos, wrote to support Aragon.

Nearly all of the 50 letters asked Johnson to give Aragon a harsh sentence to send a message to any other New Mexico politicians who may be corrupt. “Throw the book at him _ hard!” Melody Dudley wrote.

Aragon’s supporters included legislators and former lawmakers, such as state Senate President Pro Tem Timothy Jennings and state Rep. Henry Kiki Saavedra, chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. They cited Aragon’s professionalism and said he spent years advocating for poor people in New Mexico.

Aragon’s accomplishments included helping to build the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, working against gangs and drug trafficking in Albuquerque’s South Valley, providing dental care to the poor and helping in the fight to close drive-up liquor windows, said Aragon’s attorney, Ray Twohig.

“I want your honor to remember all the people Manny Aragon helped before he became a pariah in the state of New Mexico,” Twohig said.

Twohig asked the judge for leniency, saying Aragon already lost his license to practice law in the state and has family financial obligations.

Parra, the engineer involved in the scheme, was sentenced Tuesday to 46 months in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and $601,000 in restitution. He pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and mail fraud.

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