Having a functional, independent and transparent state ethics commission might have done some good for the public in the case of former state Sen. Phil Griego, a Democrat from San Miguel County, who now finds himself facing nine criminal charges.
A criminal complaint recently filed by state Attorney General Hector Balderas alleges bribery, fraud, perjury, tampering with public records and violating ethical principles of public service and financial disclosure requirements.
Those allegations arose from Griego’s actions while in political office in promoting the sale of a historic state-owned building in Santa Fe to a private buyer during the 2014 legislative session. The Legislature had to approve the sale and Griego did not disclose his interest in it.
Ultimately Griego received a tidy $50,000 fee from the buyer for monitoring the sale. 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 office.
Had it not been for archived webcasts of the chicanery that went on in the Senate Rules Committee and on the Senate floor, Griego’s distasteful manipulation of fellow senators might not have become public knowledge. It’s worth noting those are taped on behalf of the governor’s staff, a practice done despite objections of Senate Democratic leaders.
At some point, a secret complaint against Griego was filed with the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee, much of whose proceedings are secret. During the 2015 legislative session, the Senate Hearing Subcommittee of the ethics committee investigated, though not many people were aware of it. Finally, Griego gave the subcommittee a signed document on March 10, stipulating to ethical violations.
With the scandal about to go to the Senate floor for a public hearing and faced with possible expulsion from the Senate, Griego abruptly resigned four days later. The AG opened his investigation into the murky deal about a month later.
So Griego likely won’t be filing Tuesday to try to get this Senate seat back, an idea he said he has been toying with while continuing to spend some of his left-over campaign war chest and collecting a $1,300 monthly legislative pension.
The kind of ethics commission envisioned by Rep. Jim Dines, a Republican from Albuquerque, and supported by groups such as Common Cause, would have changed the way Griego’s case was handled while he was still in office.
Hearings would have been public, as would have complaints and the responses to them. So would have the basis for their resolution – whether upheld or dismissed.
Dines’ joint resolution to create an independent commission cleared the House in the recent legislative session but failed to make it through the Senate. Dines pulled the resolution while it was in the Senate Rules Committee after senators led by Daniel Ivy Soto, D-Albuquerque, were proceeding to eliminate the very transparency provisions that would have made it so valuable. It’s worth noting there is some bipartisan notion in the Senate that what happens there ain’t really anybody’s business if you aren’t a member of that “deliberative” body.
If the Griego ethics scandal is any indication – and unfortunately public corruption isn’t all that rare in New Mexico – lawmakers should again take up an independent and transparent ethics commission next year. That is, if they really are interested in restoring public trust from constituents.
It’s past time to approve a reasonable, open process for handling situations like Griego’s.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.