Phil Griego kept his head up for the first two guilty counts. When the jury convicted him of bribery, he lifted his hands to his forehead. At fraud, the heaviest charge, his head started to sag. His wife, Jane, gasped.
In just a single day of deliberation after a trial that lasted more than two weeks, a Santa Fe jury convicted the former senator and veteran of 19 legislative sessions of five crimes Thursday evening. A judge could sentence him to more than a decade in prison.
A story in SFR broke the news of the questionable sale of state-owned property (Cover, "Sold Out", July 2014) and set in motion an ethics investigation that led to Griego's resignation from the Senate and, ultimately, to the trial that ended with his conviction.
Griego didn't speak as he left the courtroom.
His attorney, Tom Clark, said Griego will appeal the conviction. "Anytime there's a conviction, there's going to be an appeal, especially in a case with this kind of complication."
In a statement, Attorney General Hector Balderas said, "Public officials are elected to do the work of the people, not to enrich themselves from their official duties while New Mexicans struggle just to get by. New Mexico families deserve the highest level of ethics and service from their elected officials."
The convictions—four felonies and misdemeanor that also include violating the ethical principle of public service and having an unlawful interest in a public contract—are the latest turns in the saga of a real estate deal that netted him a commission check for $51,389.07. Griego brokered the sale of a state building to the owners of the Inn of the Five Graces and asked legislative staff to draft a resolution authorizing the sale.
Jurors found Griego not guilty on three charges—a second count of fraud for failing to inform his qualifying real estate broker of the deal, a count of perjury for filing a financial disclosure form that didn't include his commission, and another misdemeanor related to the financial disclosure.
Prosecutors asked state District Court Judge Brett Loveless to place Griego in custody until sentencing, citing a conversation he'd had with one of the witnesses outside the courtroom. It was before Mahoney testified and the state argued it amounted to witness tampering and Loveless came close to jailing Griego during the trial.
Griego told real estate broker JJ Mahoney that he knew someone who might be interested in buying land Mahoney had and that he'd get in touch with him after the trial. Loveless denied the request, saying Griego did not appear to be a flight risk. He told Griego, however, that he expected to-the-letter compliance with his release conditions and any further contact with witnesses could land him in jail.
Several of Griego's former colleagues testified in his trial, including Santa Fe Rep. Jim Trujillo. Trujillo changed his testimony, at first saying he would have not carried the resolution authorizing the sale of a state-owned building had he known Griego would profit. He later said he probably still would have.
Trujillo told SFR Thursday evening that he wasn't sure how Griego's conviction would reflect on public servants in New Mexico, a state with a long history of public corruption.
"That could be a conclusion that some people would think bad about the Legislature. But then on the other hand, you know, while Phil was in office, he did a lot for the state and for the district, he did a lot for people. So, it kinda cancels out. At least I think so."
Trujillo said he didn't think the 69-year-old grandfather should serve prison time and said the conviction perhaps makes a stronger case for changing New Mexico's longstanding practice of not paying legislators a salary for their service.
“I think he’s learned his lesson. And he’s going to pay for it one way or another,” he said. “I don’t know if there is a monetary penalty. Even that, I don’t know if he can afford to pay it. He doesn’t have money in the bank. This being a citizen legislature is another thing. You have to make a living. … It’s time to come out of the closet and start paying them so they don’t have to even think about doing something like this.”
Griego's sentencing is expected in 90 days—Valentine's Day and the penultimate day of the 2018 legislative session. By the legislative calendar, it will be four years to the day after the Senate passed House Joint Resolution 8, which authorized the sale and set in motion the real estate deal that would turn a senator into a felon.