By Dennis J. Carroll
SANTA FE (Reuters) - Santa Fe County's once ambitious and popular top lawman could get up to eight years in prison for selling county property, including used police body armor, on the Internet, authorities said on Thursday.
Former Sheriff Greg Solano, 47, pleaded guilty on Wednesday in District Court as part of a plea agreement to five counts of fraud for embezzling county property and selling the items for his own gain on the popular online auction site, eBay.
The plea deal came eight months after Solano resigned as sheriff and admitted auctioning the items for personal profit. A date for the sentencing hearing has not been set.
"Solano was elected to protect and serve, not steal and profit," Special Prosecutor Matt Chandler told Reuters.
"In an era where public trust is becoming the topic of the day, it's time to send a message that gross misconduct by public officials will be strictly punished, and I believe an eight-year prison sentence will send that message."
Attorneys for Solano, who has said he had financial problems at the time of the sales, could not be immediately reached for comment.
In addition to the prison time, Solano could get up to 15 years of probation and be ordered to pay $137,000 in restitution, which includes the $64,200 the county paid for an audit of the sheriff's office.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers were still in talks over the costs of the items stolen and how much Solano would be required to repay. The sales date back to January 2007, Chandler said.
The property included a wide range of items - from printer ink cartridges, cell phone chargers and blank CDs to bullet-proof vests, flashlights and other police gear.
If Solano had been convicted of the original 251 embezzlement counts cited at the time of his arrest in January, he could have faced more than 100 years in prison.
Solano apologized to his family, friends and former law enforcement colleagues, saying he resorted to the embezzlement because of personal financial problems, including back home mortgage payments.
"I will continue to work to make right for what I have done wrong," Solano said. He is currently free on $25,000 bail.
Solano was nearing the end of his second, four-year term when he resigned in November. At one point he had considered running for lieutenant governor or seeking a presidential appointment as the U.S. attorney for New Mexico.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)