Threatened with expulsion from the New Mexico Legislature for violating Senate ethics rules and a provision in the state consitution, Sen. Phil A Griego, D-San Jose, has resigned the District 39 seat he’s held since 1996.
The powerful chairman of the Corporations and Transportation Committee has been under scrutiny since an
last summer uncovered he had brokered a real estate deal for a state building with a Santa Fe hotelier and after quietly pushing legislation for its sale and to get the deal approved by the State Board of Finance and
. According to sources, Griego earned a $50,000 fee for his efforts.
When Griego inked his name on a contract with Ira and Sharif Seret, he perhaps had no idea he was signing away his political career.
“My respect and love for the Senate have convinced me this action is necessary in order to avoid a major distraction to the important work that needs to be accomplished for the families and children throughout the state of New Mexico,” wrote Griego in a resignation letter read into the record on the Senate Floor on Saturday afternoon.
The state’s constitution prohibits lawmakers from directly or indirectly benefiting from legislation where they may have a financial interest. In Griego’s case, colleagues in the House and Senate confirmed that Griego had pushed them to carry a joint resolution during last year’s session to authorize the sale of an Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s building already under lease to the Seret's Inn of Five Graces in the historic Barrio De Analco district in Santa Fe.
Today's resignation may have shocked the state's political community and surprised Griego's constituents, but the events leading up to it have been in the works behind closed doors since last fall. Weeks before the start of session, Stephanie Maez, then the executive director of the Center for Civic Policy nonprofit advocacy group and now a state representative herself, told SFR her group was
. Because complaints are reviewed behind closed doors it's unknown if that complaint was ever filed.
Saturday afternoon Sen. Mary Kay Papen told SFR all protocols were followed. After the session started, Griego was confronted with the allegations and told outside counsel had found violations and senators on the Interim Legislative Committee were considering sanctions including reading a reprimand into the Senate record and stripping Griego from his interim committee chairmanships.
On Tuesday, Griego signed a document admitting he violated Senate rules and his oath of conduct and was willing to be punished. He argues that he didn't technically vote on the bill, yet the original
on the matter shows that he did.
During caucus meetings on Thursday night, however, Republican senators and progressive Democrat members, according to insiders, wanted stricter sanctions. Some suggested Griego be censured. Others demanded a vote to expel Griego.
With the handwriting on the wall, Griego, who has
and been the subject of
, opted to resign rather than face a lengthy senate floor discussion.
Gov. Susana Martinez will select Griego’s replacement, but that’s unlikely to happen before the close of the 2015 legislative session on March 21, because Griego’s oddly shaped district covers portions of six counties. Each county commission will submit a name to the governor. She’s required to choose from one of the names submitted. His departure leaves a Senate with 24 Democrats and 17 Republicans.
Santa Fe County announced late Saturday that it planned to hold an emergency meeting Sunday at noon to name a replacement for recommendation to the governor. The county Democratic Party, however, says the choice doesn't necessitate an emergency. Its chairman Richard Ellenberg issued a statement saying the group "strenuously objects" to the meeting.
Papen and Senate Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez reacted to the apparent rush with a statement late Saturday as well:
"It is our understanding that Governor Susana Martinez, in response to the recent Senate seat vacancy of Senate District 39, has sent a letter to the six county commissions of District 39 urging them to quickly nominate a replacement for the seat," they wrote.
"While we believe that it is important for all districts to be represented in the Legislature, we also believe this decision must be made with careful consideration. Regardless of an appointee’s political affiliation, we hope a decision will be made based on qualifications that include honesty, trustworthiness, a passion to serve the people of New Mexico and instill good policy, the ability to forge agreement and compromise, as the Senate often works in a civil and collaborative manner, and a broad understanding of Senate District 39. While it is the Governor’s right to make the appointment, it is important that the public has the opportunity to have input in this selection and that the county commissions are given sufficient time to consider and nominate well-qualified individuals with the characteristics needed to fill this very important seat." Reporter's Correction: An original version of this story said the Center for Civic Policy had filed a complaint, but our earlier reporting more accurately reported they were only considering filing a complaint.