October 16, 2015

Sen. who resigned after ethics scandal still spending campaign cash

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One former state senator—who resigned this year after violating ethics laws—continued to spend money raised by his campaign committee according to his most recent campaign finance report.

Phil Griego

Phil Griego

October 13 marked the latest deadline for political candidates to report any expenditures made from or donations made to their campaigns from April 7 to Oct. 5.

According to the report filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State by former State Senator Phil Griego, his campaign spent $6,000 on constituent meetings, car repairs and rent for office space since Griego resigned amid controversy in March of this year during the legislative session.

One watchdog who has pushed for stronger ethics laws in New Mexico says the spending is not allowed.

The Democrat from San Jose is no stranger to controversy. Multiple news stories have highlighted possible conflicts of interest in the past.

Can he spend the money?

If Griego decides to run again, under the state’s campaign finance laws, he could indeed spend his current campaign money on things like events for constituents or consultants. But he’s not running.

Griego told New Mexico Political Report that he will not run for Senate again. Citing his age and that he would be a freshman in the Senate if elected again.

“I’d never go back,” Griego said. “I would be 72 when I get out of there.”

Griego did pay Allen Branch, who works for a Santa Fe realty group, $1,500 in money earmarked for a “consultant.”

Griego said he paid Branch to gather statistical data to better determine where to send brochures and flyers he plans to mail. Of the constituency he used to represent, Griego said he will always represent them.

“They’ll always be my constituents,” Griego said.

Not so, says the head of one group who advocates for cleaner elections.

Viki Harrison, the director of the non-partisan group Common Cause New Mexico, said she can’t see Griego’s spending is above board.

“I don’t think it’s legitimate at all,” Harrison told New Mexico Political Report.“He can say he’s serving those people but those are (current Senator) Ted Barela’s constituents.”

In addition to rent, Griego’s campaign reimbursed Griego himself for $1,500 split between two expenditures in August of this year with the purpose listed as “campaign expenditure for constituent meeting.”

Griego argued that just because he resigned does not mean he has to stop working for those in the district, citing his effort to open a Smokey Bear museum in Capitan, New Mexico. When New Mexico Political Report cited an existing museum in Capitan, Griego insisted there was not one there yet.

“He’s not their legislator,” Harrison countered.

Griego also told New Mexico Political Report that the rent payments are allowed under the current campaign finance laws. He said he planned on retiring after the upcoming 30-day legislative session next year and so was already planning on paying rent until April.

Harrison said he cannot use those funds as he currently is because, “He’s not a candidate or legislator.”

When asked whether he expected scrutiny of his campaign expenditures, Griego simply answered, “Sure.”

A

The limitations on how candidates can use contributions.

In late September, Griego told New Mexico In Depth he wasn’t sure what he could do with the leftover money in his campaign account. Harrison said in that report that the law is very clear on that issue and there a number of ways to use the money legally, including giving back to those who donated.

Harrison told New Mexico Political Report that her group encourages people to donate money to candidates as a way to get involved in elections. She said misusing campaign money mostly hurts “the people that gave him their hard earned money to run for office.”

It started with an ethics violation

On March 14, 2015 the Senate chief clerk read Griego’s letter of resignation on the floor in the dying days of the legislative session. The resignation came after accusations that Griego advocated for a bill that ultimately had a direct affect on a real estate deal he had brokered.

Whether he pushed for it or not was ultimately a moot point.

Griego did not vote on the legislation, but was a member of the Senate when a joint resolution was passed allowing the state to sell a piece of property to Griego’s clients.

A legislative committee determined that Griego violated the state constitution when was involved in a contract that was approved by the legislature.

Griego signed the complaint and by the end of the week he would also sign his resignation letter. His letter was brief and did not give a reason for the resignation except to say he wanted to “avoid a major distraction” in the Senate.

Old Habits

Less than a month after he resigned, Griego’s campaign spent $400 for rent to Blue Chip Plaza LLC. The campaign would go on to spend another $1,400 on rent through September of this year.

In the past year, Griego has spent at least $7,000 on rent. His campaign expenditure report lists the address for Blue Chip LLC as 1040 Don Diego NE, in Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Reporter reported last year on Griego and his relationship with the Carlisle Solutions Group (CSG), which is located at that address. This was a separate investigation from the one that helped lead to Griego’s resignation.

The Santa Fe Reporter story found that Griego may have helped CSG secure a contract with the Public Regulation Commission. CSG took over a building lease from Griego but agreed to let him use part of the space for Griego’s real estate business.

The reporter, Peter St. Cyr, wrote that he went to speak with a representative of CSG at 1040 Don Diego NE. According to the Secretary of State’s website, Blue Chip Plaza LLC is registered at the address of Sommer Udall Sutton Law Firm in Santa Fe. Additionally, the company’s organizer is listed at Kurt A Sommer, who is also a managing Partner at Sommer Udall Sutton.

New Mexico Political Report emailed and left a phone message for Sommer for clarification on the structure of Blue Chip LLC and was told he was out of the office for the week. We will add his comments when we receive them.

As for the $1,500 for the consultant, it went to Branch, who is listed as a leasing and sales staff member of Branch Realty Commercial Advisors.

Branch told New Mexico Political Report that he did his work for Griego independently from the realty company. He said he did Geographical Information System work for Griego and was “plotting out voters,” but would not give specifics about why he was working for Griego.

What’s next?

Currently, without a state ethics commission, the state Attorney General and Secretary of State are the authorities on campaign finance violations.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office told New Mexico Political Report if a complaint is filed, they will look into it.

“The Office of the Attorney General takes complaints from many different sources,” AG spokesman James Hallinan wrote in an email. “When a complaint is received by our agency, it is fully reviewed and investigated where appropriate.”

New Mexico Political Report asked the Secretary of State’s Office whether Griego’s spending constitutes a violation.

Secretary of State Spokesman Ken Ortiz told New Mexico Political Report his office would need to get more information before determining whether Griego violated the law.

“With the information provided within Mr. Griego’s report, it is unclear whether a violation may or may not have occurred,” wrote Ortiz in an email. “ Based on your inquiry, our office will contact Mr. Griego for further information.”

Ortiz also wrote that the Campaign Reporting Act does not have a provision for officials who have left office.

“The Campaign Reporting Act does not specifically define allowable use of campaign funds for individuals no longer in office,” Ortiz said. “If these expenditures can be justified by the candidate as falling within the limitations of use described then they are allowable.”

Harrison wouldn’t say for sure if Common Cause will file a complaint against Griego, but she did say this is the type of situation where they might seek more clarification from state officials. But, she said she’s confident Griego’s actions constitute a violation.

“I don’t see how I can read the statute another way,” she said.

Update: Added response from the Secretary of State’s office.

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