Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Prosecutors described former state Sen. Phil Griego as a man committed to a $50,000 payday.
He concealed his financial interest in the sale of a state building, they said, but worked methodically before, during and after the 2014 legislative session to push the deal to fruition – violating state bribery, fraud and ethics laws along the way.
“He used his public office to set up his payday,” said Zach Jones of the state Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case.
But that was just one side presented to jurors Tuesday as Griego’s two-week trial got underway in Santa Fe.
Griego’s attorney, Tom Clark, said the case outlined by state prosecutors is “patently untrue.” The former lawmaker applied no political pressure, had nothing to hide and violated no law in receiving a real estate commission, Clark said.
Furthermore, he didn’t actually vote on the legislation that authorized the building sale, Clark said, and it wasn’t until after the legislative process that his client agreed to a contract to help the buyer of the building.
“This is anything but an easy case,” he told jurors, urging them to pay close attention to the details.
Griego, a 69-year-old Democrat from San Miguel County, resigned from the Senate in 2015, after an ethics investigation by a legislative committee.
Just before his resignation, he signed an agreement acknowledging that he had violated a Senate rule, an oath of ethical conduct and a provision in the state Constitution prohibiting lawmakers from having an interest in any state contract authorized by laws passed during their tenure.
Griego said he was unaware of the prohibition.
Prosecutors under Attorney General Hector Balderas filed criminal charges the next year.
Griego could face more than 20 years in prison and as much as $33,000 in fines if convicted of all eight charges.
The property at the center of the trial is a block from the Roundhouse. It used to house state offices, but the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department later rented it out to the company that owns the nearby Inn of the Five Graces.
That company – Galisteo Street Inc., headed by Ira Seret, a member of a prominent Santa Fe merchant family – eventually bought the building, once the Legislature had cleared the way for its sale.
Jurors watched Tuesday as prosecutors showed video clips of a 2014 floor session of the state Senate, when the building legislation was debated.
In the clip, Sen. Griego is called on to present the proposed resolution but instead defers to a colleague, Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat who says it’s in the state’s interest to sell the building and avoid future maintenance costs.
Griego leaves the floor just as the voting begins and then returns shortly after.
Prosecutor Clara Moran – as she questioned top legislative staffer Raúl Burciaga – suggested Griego had violated Senate rules requiring him to stay on the floor and participate in votes, unless he’s excused or otherwise prevented from doing so. She also used Burciaga’s testimony to show Griego hadn’t disclosed a personal or monetary interest in the legislation, a process outlined in Senate rules.
In any case, Senate documents actually recorded him as voting in favor, even though he appeared to be absent from the floor when the vote actually happened.
Moran’s questioning suggested Griego improperly avoided the vote and failed to disclose a conflict.
Griego’s attorneys didn’t see it that way. In their cross examination, they got Burciaga to acknowledge that it isn’t unusual for legislators to “take a walk” during a vote without being punished for violating the rules.
A brief absence, Burciaga said, could be for something as innocuous as a trip to the restroom. Or, he acknowledged under questioning, a legislator might deliberately want to avoid having his or her name attached to action on a bill or want to avoid a conflict of interest.
Clark started the day by urging jurors to keep an open mind.
“The judiciary doesn’t try people by public opinion,” he said.
Jones, in turn, said Griego, an experienced legislator and real estate broker, knew exactly what he was doing, orchestrating a deal to enrich himself.
“At its core, he said, “this case is not that complicated.”