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Griego testifies in his defense in corruption trial


Former state Sen. Phil Griego stands in court in Santa Fe on Tuesday.(Eddie Moore/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – He expressed regret and sadness – and a touch of indignation, too.

Former state Sen. Phil Griego took the stand Tuesday for about six hours to defend himself on charges that he illegally used his state office to push for the sale of a historic state building. He later made a $50,000 commission on the deal as a real estate broker.

Under questioning by his attorney, Tom Clark, Griego haltingly told jurors he had resigned in 2015 after an investigation by a legislative ethics committee.

He paused repeatedly to compose himself as he read to the jury his resignation letter, which said he was stepping down with a “heavy heart” to avoid being a distraction – a sign of respect for the Senate.

The courtroom was silent as Clark said he had finished his questioning.

But Griego later turned indignant – under blunt questioning by prosecutor Mark Probasco, who wanted to know whether it was respectful when he failed to disclose his role in the real estate deal, which was possible only with authorization by the Legislature.

“My respect for the Senate goes back 18 years,” Griego retorted. “… You have no idea, because you’ve never been a senator. You don’t know what the Senate is all about.”

He concluded: “What are you insinuating?”

But Griego also suggested he had some regrets. A juror submitted a written question, asking Griego whether he still believes there was no conflict of interest.

“I’ve thought about this for the last three years,” Griego responded. “There were a lot of things I could have done different and should have done different.”

He added: “I never intended to lie, cheat or steal from anybody.”

‘Took a walk’

Prosecutors with the state Attorney General’s Office have charged the ex-lawmaker with violating state laws on bribery, fraud, financial disclosures, perjury and ethical misconduct.

Griego, a 69-year-old Democrat from San Jose, faces up to 23½ years in prison and as much as $33,000 in fines if he’s convicted of all eight counts.

At issue is his involvement in the sale of a state building. Before the 2014 legislative session, Griego says, he was called by a member of the Seret family, who expressed interest in buying the building from the state if it were to go on the market.

Prosecutors say Griego then used his position as a senator to push legislation authorizing the sale of the building, even if he didn’t actually participate in the vote on it. In any case, the Legislature passed legislation authorizing the sale, and when the state sold the building, Griego ended up making a $50,000 commission.

Griego’s defense attorneys say he didn’t commit a crime.

Griego testified Tuesday that he didn’t actually vote on legislation authorizing the building sale – the transaction on which he’d later receive a commission.

He “took a walk” during the vote, he said, one of many steps he described as an attempt to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

Griego also insisted that he was never promised any money to work for the company that wanted to buy the building, until after the session. He was simply ready to help the buyers if the building were to go on sale eventually, he said.

“I wasn’t trying to hide anything from anybody,” Griego said.

But he acknowledged that he had spoken to the Seret family – who owned the company leasing the building – about helping the family if the building came up for sale. That was before the 2014 legislative session, but there was no contract or arrangement to receive a commission at that time, he said.

“Nowhere in my mind did I have a conflict,” Griego said.

He said he got the legislative process started by approaching bill drafters for the Legislature, before asking another lawmaker to sponsor the resolution needed to authorize the sale.

Griego insisted he didn’t apply any political pressure as his colleagues considered the resolution.

He granted that he could have been more open about it, though, by telling the lawmaker who agreed to sponsor the building legislation, Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, that he’d been contacted by the Serets earlier.

“In retrospect,” Griego said, “I guess I should have told him I had spoken to (a member of the Seret family). I should have told the whole world.”

But he did take steps to disclose his relationship with the Serets after the 2014 legislative session – when the transaction still had to be reviewed by a state buildings commission.

Disclosure at that point was appropriate, Griego said, because he had “solidified” his agreement to serve as a real estate agent for the Seret family.

He disclosed that relationship to several state officials, he said.

One of them, Griego said, was then-State Auditor Hector Balderas – who now, as attorney general, is responsible for his prosecution.

“I just asked for an opinion,” Griego said. “He was my friend.”

But the judge prohibited Griego from testifying about anything Balderas said to him.

Balderas has denied that he ever gave legal advice to Griego abut the building sale.

‘A little nervous’

Throughout most of the day, Griego appeared confident and comfortable answering questions, though he acknowledged some jitters in the morning.

“Can I get some water? I’m a little nervous,” he said at one point. “I’ve never done this before.”

He appeared to grow emotional as he spoke about his departure from the Senate. At one point in the 2015 legislative session, he said, he was told he’d be reprimanded by the Senate and, at another, told that he’d have to resign.

In the end, he said, he signed an agreement acknowledging ethical violations.

“I thought signing this document would end the ethics investigation, and all of this would be over,” Griego told the jurors.

He was wrong. Prosecutors charged him the next year, and his corruption trial is now in its third week.

The case is expected to go the jury today, after closing arguments.