Former state Sen. Phil Griego’s trial on public corruption charges began today, as the state seeks to prove Griego used his legislative office and knowledge of the real estate business to land a more than $50,000 commission on the sale of state property to a posh downtown hotel.

SFR broke news of the questionable transaction three years ago (Cover, "Sold Out," July 22, 2014).

Prosecutors from the attorney general’s office who indicted Griego in February 2016 are looking to paint a picture of a man pushing toward a payday and making sure he got all the real estate commission on the sale. Before, throughout and after the 2014 legislative session, they say Griego gave varying excuses for why he asked others to carry legislation needed to authorize the sale of the building; that he was friends with the family that leased the building, that the property wasn’t in his district, that he was too busy. All the while, the state maintains, Griego worked to ensure the sale that would earn him a $51,389.07 commission.
“The defendant is a skilled politician,” Assistant Attorney General Zach Jones told the jury of 10 men and six women during his opening statement. Four of those jurors will be named alternates at the end of the trial.
Phil Griego and attorneys Elden Pennington, left, and Tom Clark, right, arrive at court Tuesday.
Phil Griego and attorneys Elden Pennington, left, and Tom Clark, right, arrive at court Tuesday. | Matt Grubs
While official Senate records show Griego, a Democrat, voted on the measure that would ultimately benefit him, his attorneys have pointed out that the senator left the floor for the vote.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that distinction makes little difference when considering the broader charges against Griego, which include two counts of felony fraud, perjury, unlawful interest in a public contract, violating the ethical principles of public service and more.
“He will remain on the floor as his fellow senator presents false evidence to his colleagues,” Jones said of video from the Senate vote that lawyers intend to show as evidence. As soon as the resolution passed, he told jurors, Griego walked back into the Senate chambers and collected material he’d given another senator to present the bill.
In early testimony Tuesday, prosecutors asked Legislative Council Service Director Raúl Burciaga to explain to jurors what’s called a “green sheet” for the legislation. It shows Griego asked the agency to draft a resolution to authorize the sale of state property, then asked that it be assigned to Santa Fe Rep. Jim Trujillo. According to what Griego told SFR in 2014, he had been working for the Seret family, which eventually bought the property, well before he asked that the legislation be drafted.
This note says Griego asked for his legislation to be reassigned to another lawmaker.
This note says Griego asked for his legislation to be reassigned to another lawmaker. | Matt Grubs
But his attorneys say Griego, in essence, navigated a complex state system. He didn’t exploit it for his own gain, and he didn’t sign a contract to broker the sale until after the legislative session.
The timeline of the deal is important, defense attorney Tom Clark told jurors, because it helps prove not that Griego broke the law, but that he followed it. Clark argued the ex-senator didn’t hide his involvement in the sale of a state building on East De Vargas Street, and the deal was “not some grand fraud.”
Griego’s attorneys and the state have different interpretations of the lease agreement for the buildings that preceded the sale. Starting in 2012, it put the Seret family’s Inn of the Five Graces on the hook for maintenance of the property. Had it continued for its 25-year length, it could have resulted in $250,000 worth of improvements to the state property, paid for by the Serets. It could have also earned the state $1.3 million in lease payments.
The buildings on East De Vargas Street that were sold by the state to the Inn of the Five Graces | Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen
The buildings on East De Vargas Street that were sold by the state to the Inn of the Five Graces | Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen
Griego’s legislation, though, turned the nascent lease deal into a sale for $570,000.
His attorney told jurors that state officials across various agencies saw the property as a dog and were happy to get rid of it.
“A key tenet of this lease was that if there was a catastrophic problem with the building, the Serets could just walk away from it and leave the state with a dump,” Clark said.
It was the state’s own doing, Clark said, that the terms of the deal to sell the historic buildings to the Inn of the Five Graces gave the Seret family the right to buy it before it hit the market publicly.
The trial is certain to draw attention not just because one of the state’s most powerful politicians in his day faces felony accusations and prison time, but because of a lengthy witness list that includes legislative heavy hitters like Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth and Rep. Jim Trujillo (both D-Santa Fe). Former cabinet secretaries and agencies heads will testify. So, too, will Peter St. Cyr, the independent investigative journalist who broke the story for SFR three years ago.

Ten judges recused themselves from the case because of Griego's prominence as a lawmaker. The Supreme Court assigned Albuquerque District Court Judge Brett Loveless to the case. The trial is scheduled through Nov. 17 and SFR plans continuing coverage.

This story has been corrected to reflect that prosecutors dropped a charge of tampering with records from the case.