Arizona Democratic lawmaker Cecilia Velasquez pleaded guilty on Tuesday to one misdemeanor count of misusing food stamps, despite previous denials and accusations of a "political witch hunt."
Velasquez, one of two State Representatives for Legislative District 29 in Litchfield Park, originally pleaded not guilty back in June, when she was charged with three felony counts related to food-stamp fraud and theft.
The plea deal with the state Attorney General's Office, which handled the case, calls for an as-of-yet unspecified term of supervised probation, 100 hours of community service, and to repay the $1,726 in benefits she stole before she entered her guilty plea. The AG's office confirmed that she repaid the restitution amount in full before making her plea.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury set her sentencing hearing for December 8 at 8:30 a.m.
Velasquez would have been barred from ever holding office again if she'd been convicted on any felony counts. But whether she wants to return to politics is another matter. She declined to return a message seeking comment.
Velasquez is a former paralegal and mother of five children. She's also a former employee of the DES, working for the agency as a child-support representative from 2000 to 2008.
Authorities have not released the details of Velasquez's case, other than the fact that she managed to obtain illegally the $1,726 in benefits. DES officials declined to release the investigative report it wrote for her case, saying that federal law prohibits public disclosure of whether or not an individual receives food stamps. (However, DES officials weren't able to immediately explain why DES put out a news release in June about Velasquez, which disclosed her status as a food-stamp client.)
The state Department of Economic Security's Office of the Inspector General began investigating her case in 2014 after receiving a tip. A source previously told New Times that the charges revolve around Velasquez providing false information on her eligibility paperwork for the federal Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, on which she claimed falsely to be living with two dependents. The investigation showed Velasquez wasn't living at her declared residence in Litchfield Park, the source said, but rather in another Phoenix suburb further south, the town of Laveen, which would have made her ineligible to hold office in LD29.
The point of where the representative lives is now moot: The novice politician decided not to run for office after she was charged, and her two-year term expires at the end of the year. Cesar Chavez, who was born and raised in LD29, is running in her place now. Chavez and fellow LD29 representative and incumbent Richard Andrade won the primary election against Democratic competitors in the district, and they are likely to beat the Republican and Libertarian candidates in the heavily Democratic district in next month's general election.
House Minority Leader Eric Meyer, D-28, says Velasquez "did the right thing for our caucus" by stepping out of the race after being charged, he says, adding that he could envision her returning to the state House someday. Some lawmakers have served despite previous convictions for misdemeanors, and her political future depends on voters, he says.
"Her argument is, 'look, I didn't mean to do anything wrong,'" Meyer says. "A lot of her constituents find themselves in this position, making tough choices about how to pay the bills."
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
When she was elected in 2014, the former DES employee and mother of five had an outstanding warrant for unpaid traffic tickets, but that news wasn't revealed until after the election. Because she didn't run for re-election, it's unknown if LD29 voters would have returned her to office.
However, the candidate likely to replace her, Chavez, tells New Times that LD29 constituents are "not very happy at this case."
While everyone goes through tough times, Velasquez's actions in defrauding the food-stamp program were egregious.
"That's deceiving the community and not being transparent," Chavez says.