SANTA FE, N.M. – A former New Mexico state senator told jurors at his own corruption trial Tuesday that he had tried to avoid personal financial conflicts in arranging the sale of a state-owned building that earned him a $50,000 commission from the buyer – but should have done more.
Ex-Sen. Phil Griego’s voice broke in emotional testimony as he described his decision to resign from the Legislature in 2015 after an ethics committee investigation, under questioning from his defense attorney.
State prosecutors allege Griego used his elected position and acumen as a real estate broker to guide the building’s sale in downtown Santa Fe through approvals by a state agency, the Legislature and a public buildings commission without properly disclosing his financial interest. Griego acted as a real estate agent for the buyer of the property, earning a $50,000 commission.
Griego said he first talked with prospective buyer Ira Seret in 2013 about help needed in acquiring the property as an extension to a luxury inn. Griego helped ensure authorization of the sale in the Legislature in early 2014, and said he felt at the time that he was doing nothing improper because an agreement for him to receive a commission was signed after the legislative session.
“I didn’t believe I had a conflict of interest,” Griego said under cross examination. “I had no contract with him. I was just passing legislation because he was requesting me to assist him.”
The building was not located in Griego’s Senate district.
As he resigned in 2015, Griego signed an agreement that acknowledged he violated Senate ethics rules and constitutional provisions barring lawmakers from using their office for financial benefit – the conclusion of the ethics investigation.
“I signed that document to inform the Senate that I never intentionally intended to lie, cheat or steal from anybody and that signing that document would bring an end to the accusations, innuendo and assumptions,” Griego said.
Griego told jurors he had tried in several instances to avoid conflicts between his obligations as a lawmaker and his efforts on behalf of the prospective property buyer.
The 69-year-old defendant acknowledged that he arranged for a colleague in the House of Representatives to introduce legislation authorizing the sale – without revealing his communications with the prospective buyer of the property.
“In retrospect I should have told him,” Griego said, referring to Rep. Jim Trujillo of Albuquerque. “In fact, I should have told the whole world. ... I just wanted to avoid any kind of appearance of a conflict.”
Griego also emphasized that he walked out on a final Senate vote on the sale to avoid the appearance of acting in his own self-interest.
Prosecutors with the office of state Attorney General Hector Balderas have accused Griego of helping 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.
Griego testified Tuesday that he had not read those lease documents, as approval of the sale moved through the Legislature, relying instead on inaccurate information from a friend who worked at the state agency in charge of the building.
He said Deputy Secretary of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Brett Woods described the building as a money pit that the state was anxious to sell.
The prosecution heaped skepticism on Griego’s assertions that he knew little about the lease agreement.
Assistant Attorney General Mark Probasco plied Griego repeatedly with questions about whether his actions showed respect for the Senate and its ethical rules, prompting a rebuke from the defendant.
“My respect for the Senate goes way deeper than this situation,” Griego said. “You have no idea because you’ve never been a senator, so you don’t understand what the Senate is all about.”
Defense attorney Thomas Clark has emphasized that the building sale was propelled by the Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources with the knowledge of several officials in the upper echelons of state government – and was not a matter of deception.
Eight criminal charges against Griego include fraud, bribery and perjury. A conviction on all counts could mean decades in jail.