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Key senator testifies in Griego trial


Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth testifies in the corruption trial of ex-Sen. Phil Griego in 1st Judicial District Court on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth testified Thursday that he would have asked a lot more questions about legislation authorizing the sale of a historic building in 2014 if he’d known the truth at the time — that the state would sell the property without seeking competitive bids.

And he would have tried to slow down the approval process — and get answers to his questions — if one of his colleagues, then-Sen. Phil Griego, had disclosed a potential conflict of interest, he said.

“I was under the impression that this was an arm’s-length transaction that anyone could bid on,” Wirth testified in 1st Judicial District Court, “and there was no other relationship there.”

If he’d known that the owners of an adjacent hotel already had first dibs on the property — in contrast to what senators were told during a floor debate — “I would have asked more questions with the goal of slowing it down so we could get all the information before taking a vote,” said Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe.

Wirth was called to testify Thursday by prosecutors who allege Griego used his position in the Legislature to push the sale of the building and later collect a $50,000 commission as a real estate broker.

Griego, D-San Jose, resigned after an ethics investigation in 2015. Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office later filed charges accusing Griego of crimes including bribery, fraud and ethical misconduct.

But Griego’s attorneys say he did nothing criminal.

It was in the state’s interest to sell the building — top officials at the Energy, Mineral and Natural Resources Department testified they wanted to get rid of it — and Griego didn’t agree to work for the buyer of the building until after the bill had passed the Legislature, they say. Furthermore, he didn’t vote on the transaction or apply political pressure to get the sale done, his defense contends.

Tom Clark, one of Griego’s attorneys, got Wirth to acknowledge that he wouldn’t necessarily have changed his vote to approve the building sale if he’d had all the correct information at the time.

Wirth simply said he would have wanted his questions answered before deciding how to vote.

In answering Clark’s questions, Wirth also acknowledged that New Mexico has a citizen Legislature — the members generally have other jobs or are retired — and that it’s up to individual legislators to decide when to disclose private work that might create the appearance of impropriety.

“I certainly try to disclose as much as possible when you get in situations like that,” Wirth said.

Wirth, who works as a lawyer, was a state senator in 2014 but hadn’t yet been chosen to serve as the floor leader for Democrats in the Senate. He took up that role this year.

The state sold the building without seeking bids because a private company was leasing it from the state and had the right to buy it if the state decided to sell.

Griego’s trial started Tuesday and is expected to last two weeks or more.