Had he known Phil Griego was acting as a real estate agent for the proposed buyer of a historic downtown Santa Fe building, Peter Wirth would have asked some questions.
The Santa Fe state senator took the witness stand on Thursday, day three of ex-senator Phil Griego's trial on public corruption charges. In two hours of testimony, Wirth recounted the penultimate day of the 2014 legislative session, when the Senate took up a measure initiated by Griego that would approve the sale of the state-owned building.
It would also earn Griego more than $50,000 in commission, though state prosecutors hope to prove few others realized Griego would profit from the deal until after the Legislature had given its blessing.
Wirth told a jury that on the day of the final vote needed to OK the sale, he was under the impression that the state was anxious to get rid of the old building on East De Vargas Street because maintenance costs for the historic structure threatened to drain the state's bank account. He told prosecutors he didn't know Griego stood to gain from the sale, that the buyers—the family that owned the Inn of the Five Graces—were pre-arranged, or that the current lease covered much of the maintenance and required the inn's owners to make $250,000 in improvements to the building.
"We're making tough decisions at a pretty quick pace," Wirth explained, "and we rely heavily on the information that's presented to us."
In the frenetic final days of each lawmaking session, much of that information comes from Fiscal Impact Reports compiled by legislative staffers. Each report is like a Spark Notes version of the bill. It details the cost or revenue generated by the proposal, as well as arguments for and against the legislation. The report for the sale legislation didn't mention that the maintenance was covered by the current lease.
"[That information] would have directly contradicted the Fiscal Impact Report that we rely pretty heavily upon and directly contradicted what I was told by the department," Wirth said. He acknowledged that senators who knew the report contained erroneous information had a duty to speak up and said that, at the very least, he would have asked that the vote be delayed until questions about the cost of maintenance could be answered. Instead, it passed the Senate overwhelmingly and the deal was on.
Through other testimony by state agency heads and attorneys, state prosecutors continued to paint a picture of Griego as a man who asked for meetings and made phone calls to state employees as he relentlessly pursued a hefty real estate commission that was well in excess of industry norms.
At the same time, Griego's attorney envisioned for the Santa Fe jury a scenario in which Griego was merely following legislation that authorized the sale of the state building without trying to throw his weight around or pressure the state to make the sale. Sure, Griego attended meetings, attorney Tom Clark implied, but he didn't ask for anything the state didn't already want.
Concern about a lease provision that could cancel the agreement in the event of a major structural issue made higher-ups at the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department nervous about the building it owned, Clark noted. At least one deputy secretary thought selling the property was the wise thing to do to protect taxpayer money.
Griego's freedom is at stake, as he stands accused of six felonies and two misdemeanors related to public corruption, including fraud, perjury, bribery and violating the ethical principles of public service.
Jurors are expected to continue to hear testimony Friday, including that of Sharif Seret, a member of the family that owns the Inn of the Five Graces, which purchased the state building to expand its upscale hotel in the Barrio de Analco, just north of the state Capitol.
The case is expected to continue through Nov. 17, the Friday before Thanksgiving.