SANTA FE – New Mexico’s latest public corruption saga inched forward Monday, as former state Sen. Phil Griego pleaded not guilty to criminal charges alleging he used his position as a legislator to pocket cash in a real estate deal.
Griego, a Democrat from San Miguel County, stood calmly and showed little emotion while being read his rights. He declined to speak with reporters while walking out of the Santa Fe courthouse in a black cowboy hat.
His attorney, Tom Clark, did speak to reporters briefly after Monday’s hearing, which marked Griego’s first court appearance since criminal charges were filed against him on Feb. 29.
“This is a little disconcerting – he’s never faced anything like this before – but he’s holding up fine,” Clark said.
Griego has been charged by Attorney General Hector Balderas with 10 criminal counts, including bribery, fraud, perjury and tampering with public records. If convicted of all counts, Griego could face up to 28 years in prison and more than $40,000 in fines.
He was released Monday on his own recognizance, and a request from the Attorney General’s Office to have Griego fingerprinted and booked was rejected.
District Judge Sarah Singleton, who normally handles civil cases but was assigned the case after seven other judges in the Santa Fe-based 1st Judicial District had recused themselves, said she did not view Griego as a threat to the community or think he would be a no-show in court.
“I don’t see that Mr. Griego presents any risk of flight,” Singleton said.
However, she did impose several conditions of release, including orders that Griego not leave the state without permission, stay in touch weekly with his attorney and not have contact with any witnesses in the case. She also ordered him to abstain from alcohol and non-prescription drugs.
Griego, 67, resigned from the Senate in March 2015 rather than face possible disciplinary action over his role in the sale of a historic state-owned building in Santa Fe to a private buyer. He didn’t disclose any interest in the sale when lawmakers were voting on it during the 2014 legislative session, but he later received a $50,000 broker’s fee.
Although Griego did not vote on the legislation, he helped shepherd it through the Legislature, vouching for the proposal during at least one committee hearing at which it was discussed.
The charges against Griego allege he hid the sale transaction from one qualifying real estate broker he was working with and misrepresented the deal to another broker – supposedly to make more money.
The former senator, a rancher who had served in the Senate for 18-plus years at the time of his resignation, has previously maintained he was unaware of a constitutional provision against lawmakers profiting from legislation passed during their term in office. He has also insisted he did not commit any criminal wrongdoing.
A preliminary hearing in the case, in which the AG’s Office will roll out its evidence against Griego, is expected to take place over the course of five days next month. The preliminary hearing is expected to begin May 9.
Meanwhile, the Griego case is the latest in a string of scandals involving New Mexico public officials. Most recently, former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, resigned in October 2015 and pleaded guilty to misusing campaign contributions to fuel a gambling habit.
The scandals have prompted a renewed call for tougher state ethics laws, although several proposals – including the creation of a statewide ethics commission and a mandatory pension forfeiture bill for corrupt officials – stalled during this year’s 30-day legislative session.
Specifically, the ethics commission proposal died in the session’s final week when its sponsor, Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, pulled his own House-passed bill from consideration after a Senate panel had pushed for changes that Dines said rendered the proposed commission a “toothless tiger.”