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Former Sen. Phil Griego to face trial on nine corruption charges

Former Sen. Phil Griego talks with his lawyer in District Court in Santa Fe

Former Sen. Phil Griego talks with his lawyer in District Court in Santa Fe. On the screen is a video of the Senate vote that authorized the sale of a state-owned building that Griego profited from. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Former state Sen. Phil Griego will face trial on a slew of public corruption charges, after a district judge ruled Friday that there was probable cause to proceed with most of the criminal counts against the San Jose Democrat.

After a four-day preliminary hearing, District Judge Brett Loveless dismissed one felony fraud count against Griego but decided he should face trial on nine other charges, including bribery, perjury and violating his oath of public office.

Specifically, Griego, who resigned from the Senate in March 2015, is accused of using his position as a legislator to pocket a $50,000 broker’s fee in the 2014 sale of a historic state-owned building in downtown Santa Fe.

Attorney General Hector Balderas, whose office is prosecuting Griego, said Friday that he was content with the judge’s ruling.

“I am grateful to Judge Loveless for hearing this matter, and I am pleased with his ruling that will allow us to pursue justice on behalf of taxpayers,” Balderas said in a statement. “My administration is committed to aggressively combating public corruption in New Mexico and holding the powerful accountable.”

Meanwhile, Tom Clark, Griego’s attorney, told reporters he was surprised by the judge’s ruling on several of the counts and said Griego will maintain his innocence at trial. Griego – whose former district encompasses parts of Bernalillo, Lincoln, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Torrance and Valencia counties – had previously pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

“There’s a long way to go, and we’re prepared to go the distance,” Clark said.

If convicted, Griego would become the latest New Mexico legislator to run afoul of public corruption laws. Most recently, former Senate leader Manny Aragon pleaded guilty in 2008 to receiving kickbacks in a scheme to defraud the state in the construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque.

Other prominent New Mexico elected officials have also been entangled in corruption scandals.

Ken Stalter, an assistant attorney general, said in the state’s closing argument that Griego had violated his oath of office by using his elected office for personal gain and not disclosing potential conflicts.

He said Griego’s role as a legislator afforded him greater access to both fellow lawmakers and state government officials during the approval stage of the property sale, which the Legislature approved during the 2014 session with just three “no” votes.

“People would have done things differently (if they’d known),” Stalter said. “It’s a fair inference from the evidence that he got $50,000 and no one knew that was going to happen until very late or after the process.”

But Clark, Griego’s attorney, argued the state had not shown specific evidence to back the charges against Griego, describing the prosecution’s case as “overreaching.”

He also said several top-ranking legislators and state government officials had testified they had knowledge, or at least a suspicion, that Griego stood to benefit financially from the real estate deal.

“From a legal standpoint, it’s impossible to say the state was deceived or cheated when the highest levels of the Legislature and state government knew this was taking place and not only did nothing to stop it, but acquiesced,” Clark said.

Four lawmakers testified during the preliminary hearing, with Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, testifying Friday that he did not think there was anything unusual about the 2014 property sale.

During his testimony, prosecutors showed a video stream – via archived webcasting – of the Senate vote on the property bill, which Cisneros formally introduced. In the video, Griego can be seen walking off the Senate floor shortly before the vote was taken, then returning moments later.

A trial date has not been scheduled for Griego, who remains free on his own recognizance.

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