July 5, 2016

Case against former state senator sees first in a string of hearings

Andy Lyman

Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque

The first day of hearings related to the case against former New Mexico State Senator Phil Griego wrapped up Monday afternoon after the court heard from four witnesses, including one state senator.

Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque Photo Credit: Andy Lyman

Andy Lyman

Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque Photo Credit: Andy Lyman

Second Judicial District Court Judge Brett Loveless heard arguments from prosecutors with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office as well as legal counsel for Griego.

The day was spent by prosecution asking their own witnesses questions in an attempt to show that Griego, a Democrat from San Jose, willingly broke state law by pushing for legislation that financially benefited him personally.

Zach Jones, an assistant Attorney General, opened the hearing by portraying Griego as capable and business savvy lawmaker.

“Evidence will show he was a legislator that could get things done,” Jones told the court.

Griego’s attorney Tom Clark countered that Griego did nothing wrong as a real estate broker or a legislator when he brokered a property sale he previously voted to approve.

“This was a straightforward deal, a straightforward affair,” Clark said.

Prosecutors presented John Mahoney, a qualifying real estate broker who was formerly managed Griego’s real estate license and asked him questions about his relationship with Griego.

Through questioning, Mahoney told the story of how he and Griego knew each other for about 30 years before Griego approached an apprehensive Mahoney to serve as Griego’s qualifying broker. New Mexico law requires a qualifying broker to oversee deals made by a broker, such as Griego.

Mahoney told the court he ultimately agreed to it, but wasn’t sure he was ready to take on an extra person.

“I was concerned that I wasn’t equipped to have a sale person under me,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney went on to say, through questioning, that Griego parted ways with Mahoney to work under another qualifying broker, only to come back after he resigned from the Senate.

Mahoney testified that Griego claimed at the time that he was pushed out of the Senate because of influence by Gov. Susana Martinez. Eventually Mahoney accepted Griego back.

“We had been friends for a long time and I agreed,” Mahoney said of his answer to Griego’s request.

During the time between when Griego left and when he came back, Griego was involved in a property transfer between a private citizen and the state—a transfer that required legislation.

After Griego was charged criminally, Mahoney finally decided to cut ties with Griego.

“The charges in the complaint were serious enough,” Mahoney said. “It needed to end.”

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque also testified and said if legislators knew  Griego would eventually profit from the legislation it “would have raised all sorts of red flags.”

Clark maintained, throughout the day, that Griego wasn’t involved in the real estate deal until after the legislative session was over.

Earlier, in his opening statement, Clark offered a preview into what the court may see later this week.

“You will hear witnesses say, ‘Phil Griego never exerted any pressure on me,’” Clark said.

While questioning Ortiz y Pino, Clark alluded to the fact that the Legislature only had a part in moving the deal forward. Part of Griego’s defense is that even after the legislature voted to approve the deal, the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), who owned it at the time had to authorize it. Clark asked Ortiz y Pino if the Albuquerque lawmaker was aware that EMNRD had essentially already vetted the proposal.

“Yes,” Ortiz y Pino replied.

William Brancard, legal counsel for EMNRD testified that Griego was involved, as a Senator, in moving the deal forward before the Legislature voted to approve it. Brancard told the prosecution that Griego was “offering a hand to transmit documents between parties” after a tenant at the property in question expressed interest in buying a building from the state.

Brancard also testified that then EMNRD Deputy Secretary Brett Woods “asked me what it would legally take to sell the DeVargas building” in addition to forwarding an email from Griego asking how to sell the property just north of the State Capitol Building.

In addition to the elected official, real estate broker and state employee the prosecution also called independent journalist Peter St. Cyr, who originally broke the Griego story, to the stand to authenticate a recorded conversation between the reporter and Griego. St. Cyr posted the unedited audio to Twitter shortly after Griego resigned.

In the recording, St. Cyr asked Griego if the lawmaker thought about not getting involved to avoid a conflict.

“I’m not stupid bro, and don’t insinuate that,” Griego shot back. “I’m telling you I had no contract with anyone until late March.”

The timeline of when Griego actually became involved with the real estate deal came up repeatedly in court on Tuesday. Griego’s attorney maintained that he did not get involved with the deal personally until after the legislative session was over while the prosecution argued that Griego was working on the deal months before the session began.

The preliminary hearing is scheduled through Friday and a handful of lawmakers and staffers are expected to testify. The prosecution told Loveless they are expecting to call at least another 20 witnesses but also expect to pare down the list as the week progresses. It’s still unclear exactly who will be called to testify next as the list has changed multiple times, but the AG attorney’s mentioned to Loveless that they expect to call Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, to the stand on Wednesday. Originally Raúl Burciaga, the director for Legislative Council Services was expected to testify on Wednesday along with John Yaeger, but the prosecution suggested moving them to Friday’s hearing as it will be in Santa Fe.