(UPDATE: Velasquez pleaded guilty in this case, received a year of probation and didn't run for a second term.)
A state grand jury has indicted Arizona Democratic lawmaker Cecilia "Ceci" Velasquez for allegedly ripping off the federal food-stamp program.
Unsealed on Wednesday but signed on May 23, the indictment charges Velasquez, 42, with one felony count each of fraudulent schemes and practices, unlawful use of food stamps, and theft. The total loss to the state, which distributes federal funds it receives for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), was $1,726.
Velasquez was elected in 2014 to represent Legislative District 29, which includes parts of Glendale and Velasquez's reported hometown of Litchfield Park. She'd be forced out of office if convicted of a felony.
This is the second time the former paralegal and mother of five children has been in legal trouble in her short political career. As Channel 12 News reported after the election, the Florence Municipal Court had an active warrant for her arrest at the time for failing to pay fines for driving with a suspended license and without insurance. Court records show she's a driving scofflaw, with numerous infractions going back to the 1990s.
Velasquez did not respond to a request for comment after the indictment was revealed on Wednesday. But she did publish a denial via her Twitter account: "I have done nothing wrong! This is a political witch hunt. I'm confident that justice WILL prevail once all the facts are known!"
Tim Jeffries, the attention-getting director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) appointed last year by Governor Doug Ducey, announced the indictment on Wednesday afternoon in a statement to local media. After receiving a tip about Velasquez in November 2014, the statement says, the Office of Inspector General (DES's in-house police force) conducted an "extensive multi-year investigation" with the Arizona Attorney General's Office before obtaining the indictment.
Investigators found Velasquez uncooperative and unwilling to be interviewed when confronted with the accusation, a source familiar with the case told New Times.
I have done nothing wrong! This is a political witch hunt. I'm confident that justice WILL prevail once all the facts are known!— Ceci Velasquez (@cecivelasquez_) June 22, 2016
The charges revolve around Velasquez allegedly providing false information on her SNAP eligibility paperwork, on which she claimed to have two dependents living with her who really weren't, the source said. The investigation showed Velasquez wasn't living at her declared residence in Litchfield Park but rather in another Phoenix suburb further south, the town of Laveen.
If true, the revelation could mean trouble for Velasquez even if she's not convicted of a felony, because Velasquez must live in her district, and Laveen is miles from District 29.
Velasquez also allowed her electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to be used improperly by another person, said the source, who requested anonymity.
The state Attorney General's office declined comment on the case. Officials with the state Democratic Party and Maricopa County Democratic Party declined to comment as well. But the indictment is a political punch in the gut to the Arizona party, for sure.
Out of four state legislators who resigned while under felony charges in recent years, three were Democrats. Before being elected in 2013, Velasquez attended a six-month, public-office training program called Emerge Arizona, which bills itself as "the premier training program for Democratic women."
Velasquez's fellow District 29 elected officials, State Senator Martin Quezada and State Representative Richard Andrade, didn't return messages.
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In her bio for the legislature, Velasquez describes herself as an Arizona native and second-generation Mexican American who was born and raised in Phoenix. Besides her previous work as a paralegal, she worked in "social services" for the state for 12 years, the bio states.
Aaron Borders, a Republican who lost to Velasquez in 2014's general election, was among the Twitter users who blasted Velasquez over the accusations.
"@cecivelasquez_ just stole tax payer money, that's all. nothing to see here that's how you roll," Borders tweeted, closing with the hashtag "#corruptfromthebeginning."
Velasquez has an arraignment scheduled for July 5 in Maricopa County Superior Court.