‘There was a lot of stuff I could have done different’
Former state Sen. Griego gives teary, testy testimony in his public corruption trial
Phil Griego choked back tears Tuesday as he read aloud his 2015 letter of resignation from the New Mexico Senate while testifying in his trial on eight criminal corruption charges.
“It says I resign with a heavy heart because I have so much respect for the body,” an emotional Griego said, answering a question from his lawyer, Tom Clark.
But within a couple of hours, Griego got testy at times when questioned by a prosecutor from the state Attorney General’s Office.
When prosecutor Mark Probasco asked if various actions by Griego showed “respect for the Senate,” the former lawmaker took an angry tone.
“Listen. My respect for the Senate goes way beyond this situation,” he said. “My respect for the Senate goes back 18 years. … My respect for the Senate goes deeper than this situation. And you have no idea because you’ve never been a senator, so you don’t understand what the Senate is all about.”
When Probasco asked whether a different set of rules applied to him, Griego snapped “Of course not. What are you insinuating?”
The 69-year-old Democrat from San Jose faces the possibility of decades behind bars if convicted of bribery, fraud, perjury and other charges for taking a $50,000 commission check from the owners of the upscale Inn of the Five Graces after they acquired a state-owned building located across De Vargas Street from the inn. Prosecutors say he used his political position and savvy as a real estate broker to steer the deal through state government channels.
Griego acknowledged that he could have been more transparent about his personal involvement in the transaction but maintains he broke no laws because he didn’t sign a contract with the inn’s owners, the Seret family, until after the Legislature passed a resolution authorizing the sale in 2014. But prosecutors argue that Griego had been pushing the sale for months before the Senate voted on it, saying he discussed the matter with the state agency that owned the building and arranged to have the resolution drafted, recruited a sponsor and even presented the resolution before
a Senate committee.
A handwritten question to Griego from one juror — read aloud Tuesday by state District Judge Brett Loveless — might indicate that at least one member of the panel believes Griego had a conflict of interest.
“Having had time to sit with this situation, do you still feel that there was not a conflict of of interest, though it clearly states in the rules of ethics that a legislator is not to solely benefit financially [from legislation]?” the juror asked. “What are your current thoughts on full disclosure and/or seeking approval to ensure a conflict does not exist?”
Griego answered, “I’ve thought about this for the last three years, and there are a lot of things that I could have done different and I should have done different. But at the time, in my mind, I had no direct conflict. I was trying to avoid an appearance of impropriety at the time.
“But thinking back over the last three years, there was a lot of stuff I could have done different, that I should have done different, but in my mind, I was doing the right thing,” Griego said. “I never intended to lie and cheat or steal from anybody. … In retrospect, yeah, I could have done a lot of things different. But I didn’t because, again, I thought I was under the impression that I had committed no violation of the ethics [code of] conduct. … I have been thinking about this for three years.”
During his time on the stand Tuesday, Griego several times expressed regret about not disclosing his connection to the sale.
Clark asked Griego why — when he asked Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, to sponsor the resolution — he didn’t mention that he’d promised to help hotel owner Ira Seret in buying the state property.
“In retrospect, I guess I should have,” Griego said. “As a matter of fact, I should have told the whole world.”
Asked about not publicly disclosing his role on the Senate floor before a February 2014 vote on the resolution, Griego said, “In retrospect, I probably should have just explained. Had I done that, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Griego’s version of events directly contradicted the testimony of former House Speaker Ken Martinez. Martinez last week described how an anxious Griego in April 2014 showed up in his office immediately following a meeting in which the state Capitol Buildings Planning Commission decided to delay action on the property sale. Martinez said Griego insisted that he call the commission back into session that day, saying “my deal” had to close that day. Martinez refused.
But Griego said Tuesday that the former speaker “misspoke.” Griego said he knew then how fruitless it would be to try to herd commission members back into session after they had adjourned.
Griego also contradicted his own previous account of the 2014 Senate floor vote on the legislation that authorized the property sale. In a 2014 phone interview with a reporter — a recording of which was played for the jury last week — Griego insisted that he had voted in favor of the resolution and said there was no conflict.
However, on the witness stand, Griego said he “took a walk” and left the Senate chamber immediately before the vote. A video of the vote, which has been played several times for the jury, shows him doing just that. He said he did that to “avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
When freelance reporter Peter St. Cyr in the summer of 2014 approached Griego after a committee meeting, he showed Griego the official Senate vote tally, which showed that he voted in favor of the resolution. And this shocked Griego.
“My heart went to my throat first, because I was sure I’d taken a walk. … I never intended to vote,” Griego told the jury. “I intended to take a walk.” The next time he talked to St. Cyr, in the recorded interview played for the jury, he said he had been wrong earlier and that he had voted in favor of the legislation.
Asked to explain the conflicting versions, Griego said the account he gave from the witness stand was correct.
Clark asked Griego about the agreement he signed with a Senate ethics committee shortly before resigning from the Senate. In that document, Griego admitted to violating the state constitution and Senate ethics rules by profiting from the land sale.
Asked why he signed the document, Griego said, “I thought this would end the ethics investigation and all this would be over.”
But it didn’t end, Griego said. “It opened up a door.”
Closing arguments in the trial are expected to begin Wednesday morning, and the case is expected to go to the jury Wednesday afternoon.
Former state Sen. Phil Griego sits on the witness stand Tuesday during his public corruption trial. The 69-yearold Democrat from San Jose faces the possibility of decades behind bars if convicted of bribery, fraud, perjury and other charges for taking a $50,000 commission check from the owners of the upscale Inn of the Five Graces after they acquired a state-owned building located across De Vargas Street from the inn.
Lawyers confer with the judge over an objection as former state Sen. Phil Griego, right, sits in the witness stand Tuesday during his public corruption trial.