The corruption trial of former state Sen. Phil Griego, which concluded last week after nearly three weeks, provided a look into New Mexico politics that wasn’t very pretty.
Griego was convicted on five criminal counts, including bribery, fraud and being a public official with an unlawful interest in a state contract. The case revolved around Griego, a Democrat from San José, accepting a $50,000 check, a broker’s fee, from the owners of The Inn of the Five Graces for the sale of adjacent state property on De Vargas Street near the Roundhouse.
As I mentioned in last week’s column, the trial showed a disturbing tendency among some state legislators and other officials to turn a blind eye to what appeared to be — and what Griego’s jury ultimately believed to be — a major conflict of interest on Griego’s part: instigating and pushing legislation for the property sale and getting paid $50,000 for his trouble by the buyer.
There were other little tidbits of political intrigue that came out during the trial but didn’t get much attention from the media, including myself. There always seemed to be bigger, more important things to write about at the end of each trial day. Though for New Mexico politics junkies, these things are gold.
One interesting fact was something that came out during the testimony of real estate man John Mahoney of Albuquerque. Mahoney was Griego’s “qualifying broker,” which means the former senator’s real estate license was under him. Griego was accused of defrauding Mahoney out of a percentage of his commission by switching his license to another qualifying broker without informing him of the De Vargas Street deal on which he’d been working. (This is one of the charges for which the jury found Griego not guilty.)
Griego had left Mahoney in February 2014, right before the Legislature approved the resolution authorizing the property sale. But in 2015, after he’d resigned from the Senate in the face of an ethics investigation, he asked Mahoney to take him back.
Why would Mahoney agree to this? According to his testimony, Griego told him he resigned for reasons other than his role in the property sale.
“He said he had gotten on the wrong side of certain political factions and on the wrong side of a Republican governor,” Mahoney testified.
This actually goes along with things Griego had said at the time of his Senate resignation in March 2015.
In a written statement through his lawyer that he gave me on the morning he resigned, Griego hinted at a behind-the-scenes political battle that went far beyond a real estate deal and a $50,000 check. He said that the accusations against him were “now being used as a political weapon in potential threats against me and my Democratic colleagues, and could even result in causing damage to the people of my district.”
In that statement, Griego said he wouldn’t “let my situation become a political and campaign tool to the harm of my Democratic colleagues” and wouldn’t let a fight to keep his Senate seat “be just one more weapon in the arsenal of those whose concern for the well-being of New Mexicans is not as important as a possible political victory on election day.”
Griego’s statement continued: “As a practical matter, I decided a debilitating and lengthy fight in the hearing system would not serve me or anyone well and the outcome was far more destructive than was worth it.”
Mahoney testified that he believed the reasons Griego gave him for leaving the Legislature. But after the attorney general filed criminal charges against Griego last year, Mahoney testified he had realized that the things Griego told him “weren’t entirely true.”
“After you filed charges and it was on the news, I called the real estate commission and took his license and turned it in,” Mahoney told Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pino.
When he took the stand himself last week, Griego offered another explanation for his departure.
“As a result of [the Senate ethics investigation], I was informed that I was reprimanded before the Senate,” Griego testified, saying this happened at 4 p.m. the day before he resigned. “And by 6 o’clock that night, I was being told by the floor leader that I had to resign.”
Former Sen. Michael Sanchez, who was the majority floor leader at the time, was not called to testify at the trial, so the jury never got his side of this conversation.