Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Longtime state Sen. Phil Griego resigned abruptly Saturday rather than face possible disciplinary action over his involvement in a real estate deal approved last year by lawmakers.
Griego, a San Jose Democrat who had served in the Legislature since 1997, was not present in the Roundhouse on Saturday when his resignation letter was read aloud in the Senate. It was believed to be the first time since 1975 that a lawmaker had resigned during a New Mexico legislative session.
He made only an indirect mention of the ethics case looming against him in his letter, in which he said he was resigning “with a heavy heart.”
“My respect and love for the Senate have convinced me this action is necessary in order to avoid a major distraction to the important work that needs to be accomplished for the families and children throughout the state of New Mexico,” Griego wrote.
The property deal in question involved the sale of a historic state-owned building near downtown Santa Fe to a private buyer. It was approved by legislators during the final days of the 2014 session.
Griego did not disclose any interest in the property sale when the issue came before the Senate, but he ultimately received a $50,000 broker’s fee from the buyer for monitoring the sale proceedings, according to findings released Saturday by an interim legislative ethics committee.
The state constitution prohibits legislators from financially benefitting from any contract resulting from a law passed during their term in office and for a period of time after they leave.
However, Griego had previously defended his involvement in the property deal, telling the Journal last year, “I didn’t feel there was an ethical problem when I did the deal. We were already out of the session. I didn’t feel I was doing anything wrong.”
He did not return calls for comment Saturday.
‘We have no comment’
The resignation came after several days of rumors at the Roundhouse, where lawmakers are entering the final week of a 60-day legislative session.
Lawmakers were tight-lipped about Griego’s resignation. A joint statement released by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, and Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said the statement of the ethics committee’s findings “speaks for itself.”
“We have no comment and have instructed all of the members of the Senate to do the same,” the Senate leaders said.
Regarded as a pro-business Democrat, Griego – a 66-year-old real estate consultant and rancher – had been chairman of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee since 2009.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, the committee vice-chairman, said Saturday he expected to temporarily serve as de facto chairman until Senate leaders could make a decision about the situation.
First in decades
In the ethics committee findings released Saturday, Griego contended he was unaware of the constitutional provision against lawmakers profiting off legislation passed during their term.
But the committee findings, dated March 10, stipulated he did violate both that provision and a Senate oath of ethical conduct.
While much of the legislative ethics committee process is shrouded in confidentiality, Griego could have faced an open hearing on the ethics violations in the coming days. If that had happened, the committee would have recommended whether sanctions were warranted – reprimand, censure or expulsion from the Senate would have been among the options on the table.
While legislators have occasionally resigned before their terms ended when they weren’t returning to the Legislature, it’s been decades since a lawmaker resigned under a cloud.
In 1975, Sen. Anthony Lucero, D-Bernalillo resigned; he had been convicted of paying bribes in order to help get contractor licenses for some Albuquerque residents.
The House in 1992 publicly censured Rep. Ron Olguin, D-Albuquerque, after voting against his expulsion. He stood at the front of the House, facing members, while a proclamation was read scolding him for improper and unethical conduct that brought dishonor on the chamber.
Olguin was later convicted in state court and went to jail for soliciting a $15,000 bribe in exchange for help getting the Legislature to provide $100,000 for a crime counseling program.
Gov. to pick successor
A former Santa Fe city councilor, Griego was first elected to the state Senate in 1996. During the 2012 election cycle, he rebuffed an attempt from progressive groups to oust him from office.
Griego faced an ethics complaint from one of his primary opponents during that year’s race, but Secretary of State Dianna Duran found campaign spending on Denver Broncos football tickets and golf tournaments did not violate the state’s campaign finance laws.
At the time, Griego had claimed the tickets were either auctioned off or otherwise used to raise funds for his campaign.
The Senate District 39 seat that Griego has held for the past 18-plus years now stretches from outside Santa Fe to Ruidoso in Lincoln County and spans all or part of six counties – Santa Fe, San Miguel, Lincoln, Bernalillo, Torrance and Valencia.
With that seat now vacant, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will pick Griego’s successor. However, that choice will have to come from a list of names recommended by county commissioners in the six counties.
Many of those county commissions will hold emergency meetings today to deal with the issue. That could allow the governor to appoint someone to the vacant seat for the final days of the session, which ends March 21.
Martinez indicated she wants to appoint a replacement quickly, citing votes in the coming week on the budget, capital outlay and other major issues.
“When critical items are debated and voted on in the Senate, every minute counts and every New Mexican deserves representation” said her spokesman, Enrique Knell.
Senate Democratic leaders, however, said late Saturday the decision “must be made with careful consideration.”
“While it is the governor’s right to make the appointment, it is important that the public has the opportunity to have input in this selection” and that county commissions have enough time to nominate well-qualified candidates, said the statement from President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen.
Whoever is appointed will likely serve out the remainder of Griego’s four-year term, which expires at the end of 2016.