Morning Word

Warrants Reveal Racketeering Investigation Centered on House Majority Leader Stapleton

Health officials urge testing, masking, vaccination as COVID-19 cases rise

COVID-19 by the numbers

New Mexico health officials yesterday reported 329 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total so far to 209,684. The health department has designated 196,723 of those cases as recovered. Bernalillo County had 113 new cases, followed by Eddy County with 34 and Doña Ana County with 22. Santa Fe County had 20 new cases.

The state also announced five additional deaths—four recent and one from more than 30 days ago. There have now been 4,407 total fatalities. As of yesterday, 133 people were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Currently, 72.6% of New Mexicans 18 years and older have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 64.5% are fully vaccinated. Among those 12-17-years old, 47.4% have had one dose and 37.7% are fully vaccinated. In Santa Fe County among adults 18 years and older, 82.9% have had at least one dose and 74.2% are fully inoculated.

In a COVID-19 news conference yesterday, DOH Deputy Secretary Dr. Laura Chanchien Parajón emphasized that unvaccinated individuals remain at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19, a group that includes at higher rates the state’s Hispanic/Latino and Black populations. While New Mexico is leading in the US for those demographic groups, neither has reached the 50% threshold for full vaccination here, a pattern that extends to people in the 12-to-17-year age group. “It’s worrisome for us because we want to everyone to have the opportunity to get vaccinated,” Parajón said. “Equity is really important and we’re doing everything we can to get out to all populations.”

You can read all of SFR’s COVID-19 coverage here.

Health officials push mask wearing

New Mexico health officials briefly donned masks at the outset of yesterday’s COVID-19 briefing, an acknowledgement of Tuesday’s updated mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the rising cases in the state. That guidance recommended that fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. In New Mexico, according to the CDC, nearly half of the counties are in areas with either substantial or high rates of transmission, with four counties—Hidalgo, Otero, Lincoln and Eddy—in the latter category. Santa Fe County is one of 12 counties with mild—yellow on the CDC’s map—transmission. Human Services Secretary and Acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said the state’s current public health order ties its guidance to the CDC recommendation, but he would recommend masking regardless of in which county which one resides. “I think out of an abundance of caution, everyone in New Mexico should follow those guidelines,” he said. The rising cases, here and nationwide, have been attributed to the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant, which Scrase says now accounts for 75% to 80% of New Mexico’s cases, in line with the rest of the US. The variant spreads, he noted, three to five times as effectively as prior iterations, with households contracting the virus from the Delta variant at 52% versus 16% for prior variants. This has been the case in New Mexico, Scrase said, where “whole families…almost everyone or anyone who was at a party getting infected, getting the virus.”

AG search lawmaker’s home in racketeering investigation

Investigators from the Attorney General’s Office yesterday served search warrants on the home of Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, and her employer, the Albuquerque Public Schools, as part of a “criminal investigation of racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickback and violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.” Stapleton, the House Majority Leader, also serves as APS’ coordinator and director of career and technical education. Search warrant affidavits say she served as the main point person for the more than $5.3 million APS paid Robotics Management Learning Systems over the course of 15 years in a process that violated state procurement laws. Moreover, around 60% of the money paid between 2014 and 2021—approximately $954,386—was redirected to her son, her Taste of the Caribbean restaurant and into her personal bank account. “The extent to which [Stapleton] directly profited, and what happened to that money is a subject of this ongoing investigation,” the warrant says. The investigation came at the behest of APS Superintendent Scott Elder, who outlined his concerns regarding Stapleton’s relationship with the vendor in an April 19 letter to Attorney General Hector Balderas. The investigation is also looking into whether Stapleton, whom APS placed on leave yesterday pending the investigation, used her legislative office to direct money to APS for the Robotics program.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement describing herself as “deeply, deeply troubled” by reports of the investigation. “People are innocent until proven otherwise, and I know investigators will follow the facts wherever they lead,” the statement said, “but I will say that public confidence in government is seriously damaged by even the appearance of impropriety, or illegal activity.” House Democrats Speaker Brian Egolf, Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos and Majority Caucus Chair D. Wonda Johnson also issued a joint statement describing themselves as “shocked and dismayed” by the allegations, noting: “We have counted her as a valued colleague and have never seen any instances of impropriety or criminal behavior in her work serving in the House, but New Mexicans deserve to know that their elected officials hold the highest ethical standards and are free of corruption.” State Auditor Brian Colón issued a statement that his office had worked with the AG on the case “and will continue to provide support going forward.”

SFNF ponders fee changes

The Santa Fe National Forest wants feedback from the public about proposed changes to the fees visitors pay for Forest Service recreation sites. Some of the options the Forest Service is considering include: increasing fees at some current fee sites; charging new fees at other sites that are currently free; and introducing a $40 annual pass for unlimited access to day-use sites that charge fees on all five of New Mexico’s national forests. “More than a million visitors a year come to the Santa Fe National Forest to enjoy everything our forest has to offer,” Forest Supervisor Debbie Cress said in a statement. “Since the onset of COVID-19, we have seen an even bigger jump in use, which has put additional strain on our aging facilities and maintenance backlog.” The Great American Outdoors Act, she adds, “has given us new opportunities to improve recreation infrastructure, and the proposed fee changes will help us support those improvements for the long term.” A virtual meeting on the proposed changes will take place in early September, with the comment period on them ending Sept. 30. Comments may be submitted online, through comment cards are available at Forest Service offices and by mail to the Southwestern Regional Office, attention: Recreation Fees, 333 Broadway SE, Albuquerque, NM 87102 (or by email to

Listen up

While we’re not hunters, we always learn something new from the New Mexico Fish and Wildlife podcast. In its July episode, Southwest Regional Biologist Kevin Rodden discusses New Mexico’s free-ranging oryx and ibex populations: why they were introduced, how they are managed and opportunities for viewing, wildlife photography and, yes, hunting. New Mexico is apparently the only place to find these species in free-ranging populations on public land (if you want to learn more, check out this 2018 Outside magazine story, “Believe It or Not, You Can Safari in New Mexico”).

Rising from the ashes

More national props for Santa Fe startup Parting Stoneprofiled recently in Bloomberg, for its successful entry and disruption of the $16 billion funeral industry. COVID-19′s impact on traditional funerals, the story notes, led to increased cremations and, thus, more ashes. Parting Stone transforms human and pet ashes into “solidified remains,” aka stones of varying colors. As SFR wrote in 2018 in the company’s early days, founder Justin Crowe came to the idea after his grandfather’s death, as he contemplated the larger culture’s relationship to death. Hearing friends’ difficult experiences in dealing with ashes, he tells Bloomberg, helped form his idea for Parting Stone. “It shocked me that for all of the inspiring stories I heard about people’s lives, there were these really tragic stories about living with cremated remains,” Crowe says. Since its inception, the company has raised $1.9 million, and expects to generate more than $1 million in sales this year.

Getting back in the groove

The New York Times talks with Albuquerque-based motivational speaker and poet Tanaya Winder—also an adjunct faculty member in the University of New Mexico’s Chicano Studies Department—about how to stay motivated. The story, “How to Get Things Done When You Don’t Want to Do Anything” (seriously) focuses on a variety of techniques for recapturing one’s mojo. Winder, whose heritage includes Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute and Diné, says writing about one’s values can be a good starting place, and she often has students free write to that end. Winder’s sense of purpose, the story notes, comes from her community and she suggests “considering how your motivation is tied to the people around you, whether that’s your family or your basketball team.” The story also offers other tips for overcoming the blahs, such as small treats, social connections and friendly competition.

Dry off

Santa Fe has a 20% chance for some showers today and tonight, according to the National Weather Service. Otherwise, it will be mostly sunny with a high near 85 degrees and northeast wind of 5 to 15 mph becoming south in the morning.

Thanks for reading! Mosquitos love The Word, but the feeling is not mutual—she finds them annoying...but not necessarily disgusting, despite the premise of this Atlantic story examining parasitic avoidance.

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