If anyone besides Phil Griego's wife, Jane, were actually attending his trial on eight public corruption charges with any regularity, they could be forgiven for thinking there were two different court cases going on in the windowless courtroom on the third floor of the First District Courthouse in Santa Fe.
To hear state prosecutors with the state Attorney General's Office tell it, Griego used his position as senator to grease connections and engineer the sale of a state-owned building that would land him an outsized payday as a real estate broker. Despite having had ample opportunity to correct erroneous information about the sale, disclose his potential windfall to his legislative colleagues and let them vote on the facts, prosecutors say, Griego kept it quiet.
Listening to the opening statement and cross examinations of his defense attorneys, though, Phil Griego acted just as anyone else would. He didn't try to throw his weight around as a senator and quietly went about his business as the legislation to authorize the sale sailed through the state house.
The witness lists submitted to the court in the weeks before the trial share eight names. There's little dispute over the chain of events. Griego doesn't deny asking staff to draft legislation for the sale. He doesn't deny going to hearings or standing quietly by as Sen. Carlos Cisneros told his colleagues, incorrectly as it would later come to be known, that the building was a financial drain on the state. He doesn't deny religiously following up on a piece of legislation that he didn't carry. What does deny is that there's anything wrong with it.
Of course, there are people who arrive every day to hear what's next and to see two different teams of lawyers tell them why the other side just doesn't get it. They're paid to be there, both monetarily and with the promise that their peers will do the same should they ever find themselves sitting plaintively at the defendant's table. The jury—10 men and six women—that arrives each morning a 8 am and quietly shuffles into the jury box will take notes and pass the judge handwritten questions, look closely at the more than 100 documents submitted as evidence and proffered by lawyers to prove a point, and ultimately decide if Phil Griego was acting as a politician or a crook. They cannot choose both.
If he's convicted, the 69-year-old grandfather could go to prison. The crimes are certainly serious enough: two fraud charges, second-degree felonies that carry up to nine-year sentences each; a bribery charge that is a third-degree felony and could cost three years; charges of perjury, unlawful interest in a public contract and violating the ethical principles of public service—all fourth-degree felonies—have penalties of as much as 18 months in prison each. There's a pair of misdemeanors, too.
Prosecutors leveled eight charges in all, enough to convince many seasoned courthouse watchers to predict a plea bargain in the weeks leading up to the trial that began on Halloween. But though Griego has sat through more than a week of testimony with a look on his face best described as something approaching bemusement, it belies his tenacity. If his attorneys are acting at his direction, it doesn't appear Griego is willing to give an inch.
The timeline begins in early 2012, when the Seret family, which owns the venerable antique store bearing the family name as well as the Inn of the Five Graces luxury boutique hotel, responded to a request by the state to rent the building at 139-141 E De Vargas Street. It's an historic building, a mash-up of a particular style well-known in Santa Fe. It was at least two homes prior to becoming the single building that housed part—or all—of the State Parks Division. The agency had more or less outgrown the building.
It's right next door to the Inn of the Five Graces and the Serets responded that they'd like to buy the building, not rent it. The state wasn't interested, but the Serets' offer was all it had. Eventually, the two settled on a 25-year lease. It began in September of 2012. The family planned to turn the building into a fitness center and the lease called for roughly $36,000 annually in the first years, then $45,000. The Serets agreed to invest $250,000 in improving the building and to cover regular maintenance. Their investment was already approaching that amount before the two-year mark of the lease.
Within six months, prosecutors say, Phil Griego was talking to the state about selling the building it had just leased. Within a year, the state says he'd told officials he planned to sponsor a piece of legislation that would authorize the sale. In December 2013, he did just that. He later asked that the measure be transferred to state Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe. Officially, Phil Griego wasn't involved.
But prosecutors say Griego never let the legislation out of his sight. And he never disclosed, as public officials are supposed to, that he stood to gain from the deal. In the first week of testimony, they've sought to establish that Griego knew that the quieter he remained, the better off he'd be. Only when he needed to, they say, did he put his hand on the scale to ensure the deal got through—standing in for Trujillo to shepherd the measure through the Senate Rules Committee, closely watching debate in the measure's final Senate session before slipping off the floor in an effort to distance himself from the vote. After the authorization passed, he continued to follow the sale, and officially tied himself to it as a buyer's agent in the spring of 2014. When the deal closed that June, Griego was paid $51,389.07.
Griego's attorneys, however, are trying to convince the jury that those same events are the actions of a man trying to keep the deal at arm's length. He didn't sponsor the legislation and didn't vote on it because doing so would have been inappropriate. While he attended meetings after the authorizing legislation passed, attorneys Tom Clark and Elden Pennington have argued, he didn't lean on anyone to push the sale, even after he signed an agreement to represent the Serets. He may not have announced his financial relationship, but in Griego's eyes, that's because doing so would have unfairly influenced the process. It was not, as Clark told the jury during his opening statement, "some grand fraud."
What's becoming more clear as each side attempts to tell its story, is that the relationship between Griego and the Seret family wasn't as mysterious as once thought. Sharif Seret, the 34-year-old scion who ran the Inn of the Five Graces at the time, told jurors he didn't know Phil Griego as anyone other than a real estate broker recommended by the family attorney in the fall of 2013. Mariana "Mimi" Geer mentioned that the state might be selling the property the Serets had just leased.
Seret said he wasn't enthused about handling the real estate transaction for the building he'd just haggled with the state about leasing, so he didn't think much more about the sale through the winter and didn't meet Griego until after the legislative session. As the family formally hired "Senator Phil Griego," as the contract says, to be their agent, everything seemed to be moving forward until journalist Peter St. Cyr arrived after a Capitol Buildings Planning Commission meeting to question Griego (Cover, "Sold Out," July 2014).
Seret asked him why a journalist was asking questions and if there was something wrong with the deal.
If anyone saw trouble coming, the prosecution thinks it was former State Parks Division Director Tommy Mutz. Now retired, he logged more than three decades with New Mexico's state parks. On the witness stand, he wears the look of a man who would clearly prefer being clothed in something more comfortable than a suit. He's a former pro ballplayer who spent a decade chasing dreams of being a major-league catcher—the position more than any other on a baseball field that is responsible for knowing what's going on at all times.
By February of 2014, Mutz was nearing retirement. As he wrote in notes he started making during the legislative session in which Griego and his colleagues approved the sale, Mutz thought the deal stunk. And he thought it was obvious.
"Did you have direct knowledge that Sen. Griego stood to benefit from the sale?" Deputy Attorney General Sharon Pino asked Mutz in testimony last Friday.
"No ma'am. These were conclusions that I was drawing," he answered. "I knew that then-senator Griego was involved in real estate and he was pushing the bill, but he wasn't the sponsor of the bill."
Mutz took his concerns to Brett Woods, the deputy cabinet secretary at the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department at the time—a mustachioed man who comes off as a hardass both on the witness stand and in Mutz' notes. Woods thought the old building was a burden on the State Parks Division and feared that some catastrophic roof damage or foundation issue would eventually void the lease and tank the division's budget for that year at least. Selling it was the better option.
Woods recalled in testimony that Mutz disagreed. He wanted to keep the old building and its 50-year lease (the Serets had demanded a renewal option for another 25 years) as a steady source of recurring income for the agency. By the time Mutz asked him for a meeting midway through the 2014 session, Woods was frankly sick of hearing about it.
The parks director's notes say Woods told him to get over it: "You and I will both be dead in 20 years and it won't matter."
From the witness stand, Woods said that sounds like something he'd say.
The roughly $30,000 the State Parks Division took in from the annual lease was a drop in the bucket to Woods. Mutz remembers him saying it "doesn't amount to shit."
Mutz argued any money from the sale would quickly be shunted off by lawmakers who were busy searching for much-needed cash or, at the very least, be turned into one-time expenses like a few trucks and a handful of primitive bathroom structures at state parks.
Woods told Mutz not to worry about it; he wouldn't be testifying about the sale in any legislative committees. The department's attorney, Bill Brancard, would handle any questions lawmakers had about the sale.
"He can talk some Harvard Law School Latin to them," say Mutz' notes.
But on cross examination, Clark hinted that Mutz was more interested in making sure he wasn't on the hook for a bad deal than in making sure it didn't happen. A tall, towheaded, bow-tie-bedecked lawyer who plays up the Southern gentleman angle for the jury (e.g. "… this didn't force the state to do a dadgum thing, did it?") Clark asked Mutz if there wasn't an element of CYA—"… and you know what I mean by CYA?"—to the note-taking. Mutz acknowledged there was.
The trial is scheduled to wrap on Nov. 17, the Friday before Thanksgiving. While Judge Brett Loveless is presiding, it's really what the jury believes about the two different versions of the same story. The same characters, the same path to the sale, but two very different hopes for an ending.
Phil’s Terrible Timeline
- September 2012: The 25-year lease begins for a state-owned building next to the Inn of the Five Graces.
All of 2013: As part of the lease, the Seret family begins investing $250,000 in the historic building, turning it into a workout facility.
- Late 2013: Phil Griego tells the state he plans to ask the Legislature to authorize the sale of the property it just leased out. An internal debate begins.
- 2014 Legislative Session: Lawmakers approve the sale. Griego does not disclose his anticipated role as a buyer’s agent.
- May 2014 – March 2015: As the sale goes through, Griego collects $51,389.07 in commission. SFR publishes “Sold Out” in July 2014. The Legislature begins an ethics investigation. Griego resigns in March 2015.
- February 2016: Attorney General Hector Balderas files felony charges against Griego, including fraud, bribery and more.
- October 2017: Griego’s trial begins. Over the course of three weeks, jurors will hear two takes on essentially the same set of facts. The state argues he’s a corrupt politician who used his office to land a sweet payday …
- October 2017: … but Griego’s attorneys say he stayed quiet about his role so as not to appear to be leaning on anyone to vote his way. If they can convince a jury of that narrative, Griego might be able to enjoy the rest of his retirement.
ON THE STAND
The witness lists for State of New Mexico v. Phil A Griego include lawmakers, lobbyists and high-level state workers. Attorney General Hector Balderas sent a team of his staff to prosecute the case before a jury in open court. Here are a few of the key names. As each side attempts to tell its story, more than half of the witnesses on Griego's defense list also are testifying for the state.
The attorney and lobbyist is a defense witness whom Griego consulted as the sale was going on, as well as during his Senate ethics investigation. Griego has agreed to waive attorney-client privilege for those conversations, but the state wants him to testify about all of his relationship with Griego. Trujillo's attorneys are battling a state subpoena.
Now Senate Majority Floor Leader, Wirth at the time questioned the historical protection for the property. He didn't know Griego would profit from the sale and testified that he would have slowed the legislation if he'd known all the details of the lease and that the Serets had the exclusive right to make an offer on the property.
The former Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department deputy secretary favored the sale of the state-owned building to the Serets. Woods told jurors, "I was afraid that the department would end up holding the bag on the thing with a building that could not be repaired."
Gerald Ortiz y Pino
An Albuquerque senator, Ortiz y Pino testified that he would have changed his vote on the sale if he had known Griego had a financial stake in it and that the lease required the Serets to pay for maintenance.
He ran the Inn of the Five Graces and told jurors that the Seret family attorney recommended Griego as the buyer's agent in the fall of 2013. Seret says he didn't meet Griego until after the legislative session and only suspected something might be amiss when journalist Peter St. Cyr questioned Griego at a meeting a few days before the sale.
The director of the state's Facilities Management Division, he testified that Griego called him after the session ended to make sure the deal was moving along. Morgan was surprised. "It was the first call I'd received directly from a legislator asking for information," he told the jury. He did not know Griego was working for the Serets.
Head of the State Parks Division at the time of the sale, he thought it "stunk." Mutz favored keeping the historic building and its reliable lease income, especially considering the Serets were on the hook for maintenance. That key detail was left out of the legislative dialogue about the sale.