Monday, April 2, 2007

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Democratic presidential hopeful Gov. Bill Richardson received $35,000 in contributions to his 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial campaigns from key figures in a public corruption scandal in New Mexico, including some who have pleaded guilty to federal charges, records show.

When told by the Associated Press of the contributions, a Richardson campaign official said yesterday the money would be given to charity.

“We’re totaling it up, and any money from any of these individuals, the governor will donate to charities,” said Amanda Cooper, Mr. Richardson’s deputy campaign manager.

Federal prosecutors announced the indictments and plea agreements last week. They accused former New Mexico Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon and others of conspiring to skim $4.2 million in public funds meant for construction of a county courthouse.

According to an AP review of the governor’s 2002 and 2006 campaign-finance records, Mr. Richardson received $9,500 in contributions from Marc Schiff, an Albuquerque architect who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and mail fraud in the corruption case.

The governor’s campaign received $5,500 from an engineering subcontractor, Raul Parra, and $15,000 from a company in which Mr. Parra is a partner, P2RS. Mr. Parra was indicted on conspiracy, money-laundering and mail-fraud charges.

Another subcontractor, Datcom Inc., contributed $5,000 to the governor’s campaign; its owner, Manuel Guara, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and mail fraud.

Stuart Rothenberg, who edits a political newsletter in Washington, said the contributions could become “an issue because an opponent or adversary or critic will say, ‘You’ve got to return that; it’s tainted money.’ ”

“As long as a campaign deals with it pretty quickly, it can avoid damage,” he said.

Last year, Mr. Richardson donated to charities about $24,000 that had been contributed to his 2002 and 2006 campaigns by a securities broker who was one of the governor’s friends and political appointees. The broker was implicated in a kickback scheme by a former state treasurer during testimony in a federal trial, but was never charged. An attorney for the broker has said the accusations of kickbacks were false.

Analysts say the latest scandal, and the campaign contributions received by Mr. Richardson, could create trouble for him if he becomes better known to presidential-primary voters.

“It appears as if it would be a stretch to implicate the governor in this public corruption scandal. However, in politics, 30-second TV commercials can be made of almost anything,” said Brian Sanderoff, a pollster in Albuquerque who has followed Mr. Richardson’s career for more than two decades.

Mr. Richardson maintains that the purported wrongdoing in the $83 million courthouse project in Albuquerque occurred before he took office in 2003.

“It shouldn’t be viewed as a presidential issue,” he said yesterday.

However, the governor did sign legislation in 2003 to allocate $3.9 million to help pay for cost overruns on the building. He signed a measure in 2004 that extended the time previously appropriated money could be spent on the project.

The 2003 bill was sponsored by Mr. Aragon, who authorities say received $700,000 in payoffs as part of a conspiracy with others to inflate construction contracts on the courthouse. Mr. Aragon was charged with 14 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and money laundering. He has not publicly commented since the indictment was announced and has yet to make an initial appearance in federal court.

Mr. Aragon resigned from the Senate in mid-2004 to become president of New Mexico Highlands University.

According to the indictment, Mr. Aragon helped secure financing for the courthouse project and played a role in selecting contractors. He purportedly received kickbacks in 2003 and 2004, while he was in the Legislature and after he became university president.

Mr. Aragon was appointed to the university job by a board of regents that included Richardson appointees. At Mr. Aragon’s inauguration, Mr. Richardson called him a “visionary, a doer, a man of stature known in the annals of government.”

Mr. Aragon was forced out of the university position last year after run-ins with the school’s governing board. At the time, rumors swirled in legal and political circles about the courthouse-corruption investigation, and Mr. Aragon’s name had surfaced as a potential target.

Mr. Richardson’s past ties to Mr. Aragon could become ammunition for other presidential candidates.

“The governor has a longtime association with Manny Aragon,” Mr. Sanderoff said. “Therefore, it would be fair political game, at a minimum, to criticize the governor for guilt by association.”

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