New Mexico political corruption case heads to trial
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A former New Mexico state senator goes on trial next week on corruption charges in a high-stakes showdown with state prosecutors. The case comes to a head as scandal weary voters consider creating an independent state ethics commission to shore up oversight of elected officials.
Phil Griego, a Democrat, is accused of using his former position as a lawmaker and his acumen as a real estate broker to profit from the sale of a state-owned building in downtown Santa Fe via complex interactions with a state agency, allied lawmakers and a public buildings commission.
Griego, 69, is charged with eight criminal counts including bribery, fraud and perjury.
He has said he broke no laws while earning $50,000 commission from owners of an upscale inn that bought the building located a block from the state Capitol.
Griego’s attorney, Thomas Clark, has said evidence and testimony will show Griego never voted in 2014 on the sale as a lawmaker and was not promised a commission until after the Legislature adjourned.
Griego was ordered to stand trial last year after a weeklong preliminary hearing explored detailed evidence against him. Witnesses are likely to include members of a prominent Santa Fe real estate dynasty, leading state lawmakers, legislative staff, campaign finance regulators and an investigative journalist.
Griego’s case is the latest in a string of high-profile corruption cases in New Mexico involving public officials.
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.
A district court judge threw out a plea bargain and sentenced Duran to a month in jail and years of community service obligations, including speaking engagements before students and community groups aimed at repairing lost confidence in public officials. Duran is still in the process of fulfilling those obligations, her attorney said.
New Mexico voters will decide in November 2018 whether to create an independent state ethics commission to evaluate initial accusations of misconduct against public officials — though local and state prosecutors would still handle criminal cases.
Political ethics complaints are now largely handled by the elected secretary of state and attorney general, both currently Democrats.
Griego resigned from the Legislature in 2015 at the conclusion of a Senate Ethics Commission investigation — before the commission considered recommending his censure or expulsion.
New Mexico is one of eight states concentrated in the Rocky Mountain region without an independent ethic body.
Griego’s trial date was preceded by terse exchanges between the office of Attorney General Hector Balderas and Griego’s attorney, who unsuccessfully attempted to call Balderas as a witness.
A law school graduate and real estate broker who lives in San Jose, Griego for decades ran a Santa Fe-based title insurance company and represented a sprawling rural Senate district.