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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Democrats Release The Lions: Domenci Lawyers Up As Senate Probe Starts, Plus: Heather Warned On What's To Come; Our Continuing Coverage 

Sen. Domenici
More shock waves buffeted our Enchanted Land Wednesday as stunned observers tried to absorb the news that New Mexico political icon Pete Domenici has been forced to hire a criminal defense lawyer to defend himself before his colleagues in the U.S. attorney scandal.

One Republican, slack jawed in disbelief that the legendary Senator Domenici had been forced so far on the defensive, declared: "Pete hiring a criminal lawyer is like putting graffiti on the Washington Monument."

But as soon as the news was digested, criticism poured forth over Domenici's choice of lawyers. Lee Blalack is the same attorney who defended disgraced Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham who was convicted of bribery and other charges and is now serving eight years behind bars. Domenici was immediately subjected to a berating for his hire by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee where the juices are already flowing over the possibility that Domenici could be subjected to a competitive race next year, or in their wildest dreams, forced to retire early.

Domenici hired his attorney Febraury 28, just prior to bombshells being dropped by then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. Now that the ethics case is moving forward, Domenici can no longer hold back on a public announcement.

Domenici's lawyer has solid credentials, but his association with Cunningham was just what the senator did not need, coming as it did on the heels of sworn testimony by former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias that Domenici had crossed the ethical line and pressured him to speed up indictments in a federal investigation to benefit Domenici protégé, and ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson. Domenici is the subject of a preliminary inquiry by the Senate Ethics Committee and Wilson is expected to be subjected to the same treatment soon for her phone call to Iglesias.

There is a weird irony to Domenici hiring this particular lawyer, as was pointed out by the Washington Post: "Blalack, a partner in O'Melveny & Myers LLP's Washington office, is an experienced defense lawyer. As attorney for Cunningham, who is serving a sentence of more than eight years, Blalack dealt with one of the federal prosecutors who was later ousted, Carol S. Lam of San Diego."

SCANDAL MANAGEMENT

Domenici's scandal management has not earned high marks from the political Alligators who say his initial reaction to go into the bunker was wrong. They also faulted his weekend statement in which he said he didn't know anything about contacting Iglesias, only to admit later that he had made the October phone call. Now the tie-in to Cunningham.

"Domenici and his staff are not used to being on a war room footing. He has not had a serious challenge for thirty years and the rust is showing. Whether he will bring in some fresh faces to help out (besides the lawyer) is a question being raised," informed one Potomac Alligator.

Domenici's hasty legal hiring signaled that he was ready to fight the charges, but also meant he was not able to stop the investigation from beginning. His family and friends have to be concerned that the high-stress battle to come could take a toll on the 74 year old Domenici whose health of late has been stable, but can still be frail.

That fancy lawyer is going to cost Pete Plenty of money too. Insiders say he should be able to use his campaign funds to pay for him or start a special fund.

HEATHER IN THE HOUSE

While Pete was lawyering up, over in the House the powers-that-be were letting Heather know that the lions would soon be released on her too. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer volunteered that Wilson's alleged strong-arming of Iglesias to help out her election should be investigated. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is making her their latest poster child for Republican corruption, featuring her prominently on their Web site. However, Heather was receiving some support from House Minority Whip Roy Blunt who tried to damp down expectations for a probe, arguing Wilson did nothing wrong.

There's divergent views on what consequences Senator Domenici and Rep. Wilson could face from ethics inquires that are beginning to take shape on Capitol Hill, but one thing is certain--politics will play a crucial role in how rough things get.

There are two paths we could go down. The most punishing is described by a former top Democratic House lawyer Stanley Brand who tells the Journal and Washington Post that Wilson could conceivably be the focus of an obstruction of justice investigation by an independent counsel that could result in criminal penalties. On the other hand, another expert told U.S. News and World Report Domenici doesn't face much peril.

"I would strongly doubt that any disciplinary authority would touch this with a 10-foot pole unless you had clear evidence that he crossed the line," says Leonard Gross of the Southern Illinois University Law School. The potential violation, he said, is known as "conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice," but it's a fairly murky standard.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but most important for the majority Democrats is that Wilson and Domenici are tied up for months with investigations that will preoccupy them as they prepare for re-election. From a national perspective, our experts say making Domenici and Wilson national causes "keeps the momentum" going that the Dems have on the Republican corruption issue.

OTHER STUFF

For you ethics junkies, here's a complete rundown on the rules of the House and Senate that are at the center of the Domenci-Wilson-Iglesias imbroglio.

And here is an update on the overall investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee of the entire u.s attorney scandal.

MY BOTTOM LINES

This scandal has mutated as fast as a cockroach zapped with radiation in a sci-fi movie. Last week seems months ago and an ending seems out of reach. New Mexico politics has irrevocably changed. Senator Domenici, an icon who is as much a state symbol as the Zia on the NM flag, has been brought down from the mountain. That he hired a lawyer to defend his ethics before the body he has served in longer than any other New Mexican is an emotional jolt to those of us who have been here any length of time. Generations of New Mexicans helped make Domenici into what he has become and have taken delivery of the results. It can continue. But it will never be the same. Never.

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2007
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