"It's going to be okay," Phil Griego told family and friends outside a Santa Fe courtroom Friday morning. A judge had just told him he'd be going to prison in less than a month.
There weren't tears from Griego, and the state senator-turned-felon didn't make a mad dash for the courthouse doors to avoid the press. Facing more than a decade in prison on four public corruption convictions, in some ways, an 18-month sentence with a $47,225 fine could be considered a win.
It was far from what Griego wanted, though.
The 69-year-old pleaded for mercy from Second District Court Judge Brett Loveless, who was appointed to the Santa Fe case after a host of judges recused themselves for familiarity with Griego.
"What am I asking for today? Balance. Perspective," the former state senator said during the hearing. "Even as I accept the verdict of my fellow citizens that I have violated that law, I also believe this is not the story of my life. My path is littered not with violations, but with honest effort."
In November, a jury convicted the veteran legislator of five crimes, including fraud, bribery, violating the ethical principles of public office and improper interest in a public contract. The case arose from a Santa Fe Reporter story (Cover, "Sold Out", July 2014) detailing how Griego greased the legislative process on his way to a payout for brokering the sale of a state-owned building in the historic Barrio Analco north of the Roundhouse.
The fine of more than $47,000 is about $4,000 less than the check Griego received for his ill-gotten gains. Griego must surrender himself to corrections officials within three weeks, and the judge said he would recommend Griego be sentenced to the geriatric medical unit in Los Lunas due to medical issues.
Prosecutors had asked for 10 years in prison as well as the maximum fine of $53,245. While Loveless sentenced Griego to 9 years for the fraud charge, he suspended all but 18 months of the prison term, which matched his penalties for two lesser charges and will be served simultaneously. Loveless interpreted the penalties for the charges differently than the attorney general, and the fine he imposed was the maximum allowed.
Family members and legislative staffers filled the courtroom to support Griego. Tom Clark, Griego's attorney, submitted more than 80 letters to the court pleading for leniency. Half a dozen friends and family members, including Griego's wife of 51 years, Jane, said he was a passionate public servant who shouldn't be defined by a mistake. "He was known as a man of his word," she said, "but also as a senator who could get things done."
His oldest daughter, Darla, said her family still depends on Griego, whose 39-year-old son suffers from congestive heart failure and lives at the ex-senator's San Jose home. A grandson told the court Griego had rescued him from his drug-addicted mother. He also lives with the Griegos.
"He is my confidant, my taster of hot chile, my football buddy," she told the judge. Griego, who displayed little emotion during the sentencing, chuckled at the description.
In part because of descriptions of Griego's dedication to his family and, at times, to the people he represented, Loveless said he took no delight handing down a prison sentence.
"Mr. Griego, I find myself in a situation where I'm incredibly sad. … There was genuine affection for you," Loveless said. But he disagreed with Griego's opinion that he had made a mistake that resulted in a victimless crime.
Loveless said that no jurors from the pool selected for the trial had a widely positive perception of the people elected to represent them.
"That perception is the danger here," the judge said. "It's the danger that when people don't have confidence in their elected officials, they're disenfranchised. … You, quite frankly, are part of the problem."
In an emailed statement, Attorney General Hector Balderas said, "While we felt more accountability was in order, we respect the court's attention to this case, as well as its authority to decide the term of incarceration."
Tom Clark, Griego's attorney, argued in a sentencing memo that the attorney general's recommendation was inconsistent with his own practices, as well as past sentences for public officials who have been convicted of crimes.
Clark pointed to Balderas' plea bargain with former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, in which an original indictment on more than 60 charges involving embezzling and misusing campaign funds was pleaded down to just a pair. The AG's office didn't request prison time for Duran in that case. In fact, it was First District Court Judge T. Glenn Ellington who rejected an agreement for no jail time and ordered Duran to spend 30 days in the Santa Fe County Detention Center.
Other politicians, such as former State Treasurer Robert Vigil and former state Sen. Manny Aragon served less than five years in prison on corruption charges.
Clark equated Balderas' decade-long prison recommendation with a political stunt, and the judge seemed to agree, saying it was "more akin to revenge or something that I don't want to be a part of."
In a telling moment after Griego made his plea for leniency to the court, Assistant Attorney General Zach Jones said the former senator hadn't truly admitted to the crimes. Clark shot to his feet and revealed that Griego had signed a plea agreement in June that would have bound him to a guilty verdict on some of the eight charges, mandated a $50,000 fine and suggested a sentence of zero to three years. But the state, Clark claimed, reneged on the deal after a debate over language in the plea agreement.
Balderas' office said it didn't "reneg" on a plea deal and never received a signed agreement from Griego and his legal team. While the office conceded such an offer was made, a spokesman said it was withdrawn after a second investigation into Griego's campaign finances suggested further wrongdoing. Three days after Deputy Attorney General Sharon Pino withdrew the proposed plea deal, the office filed 22 additional charges in a separate case, including perjury and embezzlement. That case is set for trial in October.
Clark said he'll consider an appeal, but the length of time such a pleading would take would likely be longer than the nine months Griego will serve, assuming he gets 50 percent credit for good behavior.