SANTA FE, N.M. — A former New Mexico state senator went on trial Tuesday on accusations he used his elected office to profit from the sale of a state-owned building, in a high-stakes corruption trial that has spurred calls for government ethics reforms.
State prosecutors outlined allegations that ex-Sen. Phil Griego hid his underlying financial motives for as long as two years as he relentlessly pushed toward the 2014 sale of a government building through a state-agency review, approval by the Legislature and a public buildings commission.
Griego has said he broke no laws while earning a $50,000 commission from owners of the upscale Inn of the Five Graces that bought the building located a block from the state Capitol.
“At its core this case is not that complicated,” Zach Jones, an assistant state attorney general, told a jury in state district court. “The state is alleging that he arranged for state property to be sold to his real estate clients. He spent over a year laying the groundwork for an eventual $50,000 payday.”
The lead defense attorney for the 69-year-old former politician and real estate broker said that Griego has been unfairly judged in the court of public opinion. Attorney Thomas Clark said testimony in coming days would demonstrate the property sale was propelled by the Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources with the knowledge of officials across upper echelons of state government — and not a matter of deception by Griego.
“These are the very, very highest levels of state government, who call the shots, who authorized this sale, who vet this sale, who make sure the sale happens, and who want the sale to happen,” Clark said.
A Democrat who served nearly two decades in the Legislature, Griego resigned from the Senate in March 2015 at the close of a Senate ethics committee investigation.
Prosecutors under Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas are pursuing eight criminal counts against Griego, including fraud, bribery and perjury charges.
They say Griego helped spread misinformation in the Legislature that maintenance costs outweighed rental income on the state building in question, when lease documents assigned the cost of maintenance to those renting the property.
“His payday, the $50,000 payday, (was) only possible because he presented false information and he allowed people around him to present false information,” Jones said.
In Griego’s defense, Clark said the ex-senator never voted in his own self-interest on the Senate floor and was not promised compensation until after the Legislature’s approval of the property deal. Prosecutors showed jurors a recorded video webcast of the Senate vote that shows Griego stepping briefly outside the Senate to avoid the vote.
Testimony on Tuesday from staff at the Legislature highlighted Griego’s request that a colleague in the House of Representatives introduce the resolution authorizing the real estate deal.
Griego’s case is the latest in a string of high-profile corruption cases involving public officials in New Mexico.
Republican Dianna Duran resigned as secretary of state in 2015 amid revelations she used campaign funds to fuel a gambling addiction. That led to her conviction on felony counts of embezzlement and money laundering.
New Mexico voters will decide in November 2018 on a constitutional amendment to create an independent state ethics commission.