COMMENTARY: Several high-ranking government officials “knew or may have known” about former state Sen. Phil Griego’s financial stake in the sale of a state-owned building – and, in spite of the conflict, “did nothing to stop it,” The Santa Fe New Mexican is reporting.
The revelation came during a preliminary hearing in the criminal case against Griego last week. The Democrat from San Jose is facing bribery, fraud, forgery and other charges for his role in the sale of the building in Santa Fe, which earned him a $50,000 commission.
That others knew and didn’t act isn’t surprising, unfortunately. State government is plagued by conflicts and secrecy that hampers efforts to improve the lives of New Mexicans. We need structural reforms to make our government more transparent, ethical and accountable.
Griego helped push a joint resolution through the Legislature to authorize the building sale in early 2014. He didn’t disclose his financial interest in the sale to lawmakers, the attorney general alleges. It wasn’t until journalist Peter St. Cyr reported on the situation in July 2014 that the public learned about Griego’s egregious conflict.
But then-House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, testified last week that he learned about Griego’s role months earlier, in April 2014. The Legislature had already approved the sale, but the Capitol Building Planning Commission still needed to give the final OK.
The commission didn’t vote on the sale at its April 2014 meeting. Griego asked Martinez to call the commission back for a vote that day. “I guess he indicated he had a personal stake in it,” Martinez testified last week, according to The New Mexican. “I don’t know if he disclosed it. It was apparent in his conversation he wanted this done quickly.”
Martinez didn’t call the commission back that day and was the only member voting against the sale when the commission approved it in June 2014. Minutes from that meeting don’t indicate that Martinez raised concerns about Griego’s involvement.
Martinez also testified last week that he discussed Griego’s interest in the sale with Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, another member of the commission. General Services Department Secretary Ed Burckle testified that Griego disclosed his interest in the sale to department officials in March 2014. Testimony revealed that others may have known too.
Perhaps even more revealing than who knew about Griego’s conflict was the testimony of a lawmaker who says he didn’t know.
Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, who sponsored the resolution authorizing the building sale at Griego’s request, testified that he wouldn’t have voted against the legislation even if he had known about the conflict.
“Those arrangements are his business, not my business,” The New Mexican quoted Trujillo as saying. “I’m not a judge of conduct.”
Some lawmakers have rejected structural reforms like the creation of an independent ethics commission by arguing that they can police themselves. How many others join Trujillo in believing self-policing is not their role?
New Mexicans should be grateful for the work St. Cyr did to out Griego’s misdeeds. His tenacious reporting forced lawmakers to address the situation. Facing possible sanctions, Griego resigned from the Senate in 2015. St. Cyr’s work also led to the criminal charges Griego faces today.
And it has revealed the tolerance in state government for conflicts and secrets. Which raises other questions: Who else is unethically and possibly illegally benefiting from secret deals? And who else is looking the other way while it happens?