- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A criminal case against a former state senator is shining a light on the ties between judges and other politicians in the New Mexico state capital - even before the defendant can be arraigned.

Five state judges at a Santa Fe-based district court have recused themselves with little explanation from overseeing fraud and other charges against former Sen. Phil Griego. The 67-year-old Democrat is accused of using his role as a legislator to receive personal compensation from a private company in the sale of a state-owned building in Santa Fe.

Griego, who says he did nothing wrong, has yet to appear at an arraignment to enter a plea nearly a month after charges were filed. He resigned from the Senate in March 2015 after a legislative ethics commission found he violated provisions of the state Constitution.

Political observers say the recusals paint a frustrating picture of procedural delays and special treatment when it comes to the prosecution of a prominent ex-official.

Santa Fe’s district court judges all are Democrats, like Griego, and have to run for election to retain their seats.

“What it shows is that in a small state, with citizen legislators who are working another job, you’ve got an automatically built-in conflict,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of the campaign-finance policy group Common Cause New Mexico. “It’s never more apparent than when this many judges have to recuse themselves.”

Griego’s prosecution and other high-profile transgressions by public officials in New Mexico have stoked calls for ethics and campaign reforms. Most notably, Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran completed a monthlong jail sentence in January on felony fraud and money laundering convictions for using campaign donation to fuel a gambling spree.

Efforts to create an independent state ethic commission were derailed by Senate Democrats in February over worries it could become a forum for false accusations designed to inflict political damage.

In Greigo’s case, the recused judges have not explained exactly why they bowed out, though court filings indicate it was not because of any family relation, old litigation or direct bias in the current case.

That leaves any variety of possible past political, business or social interactions with the defendant, a former Santa Fe city councilor who spent 20 years in the state Senate. Griego once ran a title company in Santa Fe, and his father and grandfather both were active in Santa Fe politics - as Republicans.

Griego’s attorney, Tom Clark, chalked up the judges’ recusals to small town politics.

“There’s nothing nefarious in any way,” he said. “Since judges are elected politicians, these guys have to run in the same circles.”

If none of the nine judges from the Santa Fe-based First Judicial District Court can handle the case, it would fall to the state Supreme Court to assign an outside or retired judge.

The office of Attorney General Hector Balderas declined to comment on the recusals.

Prosecutors on Thursday made a second request for an arraignment to present charges of fraud, perjury, tampering with public records, bribery, and other violations.

Griego and the attorney general have crossed paths before. Campaign finance reports show Griego gave $1,500 in 2014 to Balderas’ successful election campaign.

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