March 5, 2007

Domenici Prompted Dismissal Of One US Attorney

One of the eight federal prosecutors terminated in the last three months lost his job after a Republican Senator told the Department of Justice that his state needed a replacement. Pete Domenici admitted yesterday that he requested the change from the DoJ after a long period of frustration with the speed of prosecutions in New Mexico:

Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, said Sunday that he had urged the Justice Department to dismiss the state’s top federal prosecutor, who in December was one of eight United States attorneys ousted from their jobs.

In addition, Mr. Domenici said in a statement that last year he called the prosecutor, David C. Iglesias, to ask about the status of a federal inquiry in New Mexico. The case centered on accusations of kickbacks in a statehouse construction project in which a former Democratic state official was said to be involved.

“I asked Mr. Iglesias if he could tell me what was going on in that investigation and give me an idea of what time frame we were looking at,” Mr. Domenici said. “It was a very brief conversation which concluded when I was told that the courthouse investigation would be continuing for a lengthy period.”

Mr. Domenici apologized in the statement and said he regretted making the call, but added that he had not urged any course of action in any investigation. “I have never pressured him nor threatened him in any way,” he said.

A Justice Department spokesman said on Sunday that records at the agency showed that the senator complained about Mr. Iglesias in calls to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in September 2005 and again in January and April 2006. The senator made a brief call to Paul J. McNulty, the deputy attorney general, in October 2006 when the deliberations over Mr. Iglesias’s dismissla began.

Needless to say, this does not reflect well on Domenici. The phone calls to Iglesias about the status of a corruption investigation involving Democrats looks like an attempt to make partisan hay out of the prosecution. It's completely inappropriate, and Domenici apparently realizes it a little too late.

Domenici claims he didn't pressure Iglesias. He may not have intended his call as a means to pressure the prosecutor, but how else was Iglesias to understand it? If a US Attorney gets a call out of the blue from a Republican Senator asking about an investigation of state Democratic officials, it doesn't take a genius to connect those dots.

However, it doesn't appear that the corruption investigation was the entire issue for Domenici's request to remove Iglesias. Despite recommending him to the incoming Bush administration in 2001 for his position, Iglesias had become a frustration for the Senator by 2004. Domenici started filing complaints with the DoJ at that time about Iglesias' performance. That certainly shows a mitigating context for the other calls, but not enough to shake the perception that Domenici pressured the US Attorney into charging Democrats with corruption to get campaign fodder just in time for an October surprise.


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