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AG comes through but judge fails in Griego case

February 20, 2018 GMT

This is a comeback story with a twist.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas has done a good job of rebuilding public confidence in himself and his office with his prosecution of former state Sen. Phil Griego.

Balderas was reasoned and vigilant in the case.

The same cannot be said of the presiding District Court judge, Brett Loveless. He went soft on Griego, a man who betrayed the public to line his pockets.

Some 2½ years ago, it was Balderas who failed badly in a public corruption case, only to be rescued by a judge.

To Democrat Balderas’ credit, he learned from the errors he made when he prosecuted former Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran.

Duran stole campaign contributions and gambled away the money. Then she manipulated public records to try to cover her tracks.

Balderas made a show of charging her with 65 criminal counts that included fraud, embezzlement and identity theft.

Two months later, Balderas made a deal that was a dream come true for Duran. Balderas dropped 59 of the charges. Duran pleaded guilty to two felonies and four misdemeanors.

Worse, Balderas did not seek any jail time or an aggravated fine for Duran.

A judge in Santa Fe, T. Glenn Ellington, repaired a bit of the damage by ordering Duran to serve 30 days in jail.

This was a token punishment for a dishonest public official.

Balderas won the Duran case, but his weak stand against a corrupt politician did not serve the public interest.

No such nonsense occurred when Balderas brought his case against Griego, a Democrat from San Jose.

Balderas did not over-charge Griego the way he did when he filed more than five dozen criminal counts against Duran.

And Balderas did not fall into the trap of offering Griego a cushy plea bargain just to get a conviction.

The attorney general’s prosecutors proved to a jury that Griego fraudulently manipulated New Mexico’s legislative process to put a state-owned building near the state Capitol on the market.

Then the owners of the upscale Inn of the Five Graces bought the building and paid Griego a $50,000 commission. The deal was rancid.

After a jury convicted Griego on five charges, Balderas called for a 10-year prison sentence. That would have been excessive for a defendant who is 69 years old.

In seeking a long prison term for Griego, Balderas hoped the judge would consider how much damage had been done.

I believed that Griego should spend three years in prison.

Judge Loveless gave Griego 18 months. But Griego’s lawyer predicts the former senator will actually serve only half of that time because his crimes were not violent.

So the public loses again. A greedy politician who broke the law might be paroled by Christmastime.

Griego continues to blather about how he is not a criminal. I suppose he wants to be seen as a citizen legislator so creative he made money by selling the public’s property.

Griego’s claim of innocence shows one thing only: He is prone to convenient lapses of memory.

While still a senator in 2015, Griego’s colleagues moved to expel him from office over the real estate deal. Instead, Griego resigned after stipulating that a senator should avoid any impropriety or any act that gives the appearance of impropriety.

He also signed a statement admitting he violated a provision of the state constitution. It bars sitting legislators from profiting from a state contract.

Griego at that point thought his troubles were behind him.

He even floated the idea of running again for his old Senate seat. So what that he had admitted to ethics violations, he said. He could re-enter the Senate with the clean slate of a freshman.

Balderas ended Griego’s fantasy with a rock-solid criminal prosecution.

In addition to what amounts to minimal prison time, Judge Loveless fined Griego $47,000. That is almost as much money as Griego made on his illegal real estate deal.

As bad as Griego’s life is now, he ended up with a better outcome than he deserved.

He will do a little time in prison. A lot of people will never trust government because of him.

Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080. Follow his Ringside Seat column in Monday’s and Friday’s editions.