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Originally published Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 1:02 AM

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Fed judge sentences former NM senator Manny Aragon to 5½ years in prison, orders fine

Former New Mexico state Senate leader Manny Aragon broke down in tears before being sentenced Tuesday to 5½ years in prison for his role in a corruption case that stained his long career of public service.

Associated Press Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —

Former New Mexico state Senate leader Manny Aragon broke down in tears before being sentenced Tuesday to 5½ years in prison for his role in a corruption case that stained his long career of public service.

Aragon, an Albuquerque Democrat who served in the Senate for 29 years and was once one of New Mexico's most powerful politicians, also was fined $750,000 — the bulk of which he already has forfeited to the government — and ordered to pay at least $649,000 in restitution.

Aragon last year pleaded guilty to three federal felony counts of conspiracy and mail fraud in a scheme to defraud the state of nearly $4.4 million in the construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque.

Aragon faced U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson and gave a rambling 20-minute speech about his early years and his life in politics. The speech ended when he broke down from emotion while talking about the "punishment" of losing his jobs as Senate president and as president of New Mexico Highlands University.

Aragon expressed sorrow for two of his co-defendants, engineer Raul Parra and architect Marc Schiff, who had to be "put through such ridicule," 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 Johnson, referring to a letter of apology he sent the court.

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

U.S. Attorney Greg Fouratt declared after Tuesday's hearing that "the era of picking the taxpayers' pockets is over."

Fouratt said his office was pleased with Aragon's sentence because it sends a message to public officials that corruption in New Mexico will be punished.

"Don't turn taxpayers' wallets into your personal piggy banks because you're going to get caught," he said.

In an October plea deal, Aragon had agreed to the 5½ years in prison, but attorneys argued over the amount of fines and restitution he should pay.

Aragon has already forfeited more than $662,000 to the U.S. government and was the only defendant in the case to return all of his share of the stolen assets, his attorneys said. That forfeiture will be applied to the $750,000 owed in fines, the judge ruled.

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The judge's order of $649,000 in restitution from Aragon could increase to almost $1.2 million. The additional $541,000 is to be shared among Aragon and other defendants in the corruption case — with Aragon responsible for the whole amount if it is determined the others cannot afford to pay, Fouratt said.

The restitution was less than the $1.9 million the government had requested Aragon pay, but the judge gave Aragon the maximum amount of fines. Aragon's attorneys had asked for $697,000 in restitution and fines that were fair, but not excessive.

The judge required Aragon to pay the restitution within 60 days. Payments would be made to the state.

Before the hearing, Fouratt had said Aragon was a wealthy man with real estate holdings and large cash and liquid investments.

"You shouldn't weep for Mr. Aragon because he could write a check today for that amount," Fouratt said.

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. The majority of members of the public called for a harsh sentence to show that corruption would not be tolerated in New Mexico.

Aragon's attorney, Ray Twohig, quoted the supportive letters — particularly those from Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings — to point out what Aragon had done for New Mexicans during his time in office.

"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.

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, 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.

Aragon will get out of prison when he is 67, and Twohig asked that when he "emerges with no dignity, with no reputation, with no employability and attempts to live out his life, that he not have to go on welfare to do so."

Johnson agreed to allow Aragon to report voluntarily for prison and recommended that he be sent to a federal prison in Florence, Colo., where he could attend a substance abuse program. Both were conditions Aragon had requested.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett used an FBI agent's testimony to detail how the kickbacks — often in bundles of cash of thousands of dollars at a time obtained after false invoices were submitted to the state — were given to Aragon and other defendants.

Aragon was in the conspiracy from the start and his request in the Senate for state capital outlay money contained extra funds that would eventually be paid to him and the others in the scheme, Burnett said.

She said what made an impression on her was the "absolute arrogance" of a man who chose a public position and used it as he wished.

"It was a destruction of the trust of the taxpayer," she said.

Parra 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.

As Aragon left the courthouse, a hot dog vendor shouted his name and gave him a thumbs up and a smile from across the street.

Gilbert Torres of Albuquerque and some patrons of his stand recalled the good things Aragon had done as a lawmaker.

"He realizes he messed up. He should just pay back the citizens what he owes," Torres said. "We're all humans and people make mistakes."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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