Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, is shown in February during a Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee hearing at the state Capitol. Griego, chairman of the committee, was absent Friday following lengthy discussions among his colleagues about a state property deal he had brokered after approving legislation allowing the real estate sale. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo
State Sen. Phil Griego was absent from the New Mexico Legislature on Friday, hours after lengthy party caucuses in which his colleagues discussed Griego profiting from a controversial real estate deal.
Griego, D-San Jose, last year voted to sell a state-owned building near the Capitol, then became the broker for the business that bought it.
He has said that nothing was unethical or improper about his making money from a deal that began with a legislative action.
“I didn’t have that contract until a month after the session was over,” Griego told The New Mexican’s Steve Terrell last summer. “There was no intent to deceive the public.” The Santa Fe Reporter first reported Griego’s dual role in the legislation and the building’s sale.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, reflected for a long while Friday when asked if Griego would resign from the Senate because of ethical or legal concerns.
“I don’t have an answer for that question,” Sanchez said.
Griego could not be reached for comment Friday.
Sanchez also said he was not aware of any possible action by the Senate involving Griego during the last week of the 60-day session.
Neither Sanchez nor any other senator mentioned Griego on Friday during a floor session thick with tension because 23 other Democrats had declined to confirm one of Gov. Susana Martinez’s nominees for The University of New Mexico Board of Regents.
Asked later if Griego had been excused from the daily session, Sanchez said, “I think he was.”
The chief clerk of the Senate said Griego was not.
As for whether Griego was the subject of caucuses by senators Thursday night, Sanchez would only say, “We talked about a number of things.”
Other senators were less forthcoming.
“I know what you’re going to ask. I don’t have any comment,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, the majority whip.
Griego, a former Santa Fe city councilor who was first elected to the Senate in 1996, chairs the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee. Other members ran the hearings of that committee Friday.
In the 2012 election, Griego faced two primary challengers, one of whom made a formal complaint accusing Griego of misusing campaign money or failing to properly account for it.
The New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office cleared Griego, saying it found no evidence that he had done anything wrong.
In that same primary campaign, Griego received financial support from one of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s political committees. Martinez preferred Griego to former Santa Fe County commissioner Jack Sullivan as the Democratic nominee. Sullivan made the complaint about Griego misspending campaign funds.
Griego easily won the primary and went on to defeat Republican Aubrey Dunn in the general election for the Senate seat.
Griego came under scrutiny again last year in the real estate deal.
It began with legislation enabling the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to sell a building on De Vargas Street to the Inn of the Five Graces as a strategy for saving money on maintenance fees.
The inn had a 25-year lease on the building, and that gave it first right of purchase. It bought the building for $570,000, or $70,000 more than the appraised value.
At the time, Griego said real estate sales are one of the ways he makes a living, and that his involvement in the sale was not prohibited or wrong. New Mexico’s citizen legislators are not paid a salary, so they often vote on bills that have bearing on their jobs or business interests.
But an ethical code may have barred Griego from making money on a deal made possible by legislative action.
The New Mexico Legislative Ethics Guide says: “Members shall not be directly or indirectly interested in any contract with the state or a municipality authorized by any law passed during the legislators’ terms and for one year thereafter.”
Griego said last summer that he was unaware of the 12-month prohibition.