As prosecutors began to wind down their public corruption case against former senator Phil Griego Thursday, jurors heard a recording of a July 2014 interview between journalist Peter St. Cyr and the then-legislator.
With defense attorneys uncertain if they'll call Griego to the witness stand in his own defense, it may be the only time the 10 men and six women who make up the jury that will decide his fate hear his take on the real estate deal that led to his resignation and, eventually, to criminal charges.
As he prepared to write the story for SFR that broke the news of the deal (Cover, "Sold Out," July 23, 2014), St. Cyr interviewed Griego for 50 minutes about how Griego viewed his role in the transaction. How, St. Cyr wondered, did Griego explain his actions alongside constitutional language that seemed to prohibit directly benefiting from a piece of legislation upon which he'd acted?
To Griego then—and now, according to his attorneys—the difference comes down to timing. When he asked the Legislative Council Service to draft the measure that would authorize the sale of a state-owned building and land him a $51,389 commission check, when he testified before a Senate committee in favor of the resolution, and when he stood idly by during a brief, perfunctory debate on the Senate floor, he hadn't signed an agreement to represent the buyers of the building, the Serets.
Weeks earlier, though, Griego had told the journalist that he'd been working with the Serets for perhaps a year and a half as they contemplated the sale. St. Cyr asked if that conflicted with the oath Griego took at the beginning of his current term—and then if perhaps the senator had forgotten the conflict.
"No, come on man. I'm not stupid, bro. And don't insinuate that," the then-senator replied tersely.
As St. Cyr outlined the information he'd gathered, he repeatedly asked Griego about his ethical obligations. Should he have corrected an erroneous analysis that was distributed and widely cited to the lawmakers who voted to approve the sale? Griego said that, despite testifying before a committee in favor of the measure, he hadn't read it to know it was wrong.
How could the state be certain taxpayers were getting a good deal on the sale? That was between the state and the Serets, Griego said.
"It was vetted by three agencies, vetted by an independent board …" he continued, acknowledging later: "Yes, I voted on the resolution. Yes, I monitored it for the Serets throughout the process."
St. Cyr was a freelance reporter at the time and later posted the recording on Twitter. The call veers between contentious and borderline collegial, as the two lightheartedly compare the relative reputations of politicians and journalists.
"I'm not going to lie to you, bro," Griego says near the end of the call.
To his attorney, Tom Clark—perhaps the third leg of the stool of disrepute Griego and St. Cyr chuckled over—the fact that Griego never disclosed his interest to the Legislature or to a panel of representatives from all three branches of government that reviewed the sale was inconsequential. Griego never tried to hide it, Clark argued, and the panel passed a measure to say it had reviewed the sale, albeit grudgingly.
Clark asked St. Cyr, who is currently the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government's executive director, about the allegations in his story, to which St. Cyr offered: "I wouldn't call them allegations. We report facts."
It's rare to see a journalist on the witness stand, but it's also somewhat rare to see an attorney refuse to testify by invoking her rights under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. That, too, happened Thursday, as Mariana Geer, the Seret family attorney, took the Fifth. Geer testified more than a year earlier at a preliminary hearing in the case to determine if there was enough evidence to bind the matter over to a trial.
Instead of hearing Geer, jurors heard a rereading of her testimony from the hearing, with a local court employee playing the part of Geer.
The attorney testified that she referred the Serets to Griego after having recently closed another deal with the senator and real estate broker. It was the only prior sale she'd done with Griego, Geer said, and while she acknowledged that she knew he was a senator and knew the sale involved state property, she recommended him solely on the basis of the recent deal.
Prosecutors at the preliminary hearing repeatedly asked Geer if he was involved in the deal only as a real estate agent, why documents and correspondence for the sale frequently referred to him as Senator Phil Griego.
The trial is set to resume on Monday, with the court closed Friday for Veterans Day. The state plans to call one more witness: the Seret family patriarch, Ira.
Griego's legal team has decided against calling attorney and lobbyist TJ Trujillo, who advised Griego at the time of the sale and again as he considered the Senate ethics investigation against him. Their only witness will be state Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and—should they decide to do it—Phil Griego himself.