Thursday, March 01, 2007
The Igleisas Bombshell: Explosive Charges Send Shrapnel Flying At Wilson And Domenici; Interference Claimed In Courthouse Probe; My Exclusive Report
Outgoing New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias dropped a political bombshell Wednesday, sending heavy shrapnel flying toward GOP ABQ Congresswoman Heather Wilson and GOP Senator Pete Domenici. The question now is what will be the reverberations from a probe of Iglesias's explosive charges of improper intervention in his office by two members of Congress who he refused to name because he said he feared retaliation. But Iglesias, according to Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), met with his staff the day before he made his revelations public and is willing to appear under subpoena before the Senate Judiciary Committee and “tell his story” under oath. The Committee is investigating Justice Department dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys, including Iglesias. Meantime, a U.S. House committee is expected to vote today on issuing subpoenas to the ousted prosecutors, including Iglesias.
Iglesias, 49, says two members of Congress called him in mid-October to ask about the status of indictments in the federal investigation of the construction of two Bernalillo county courthouses, indictments that Iglesias said the two congressional members seemed eager for. "They were fishing around for information in terms of the status of the investigation...They were fishing around for a timetable. Those are things I'm prohibited from talking about...I didn't give them what they wanted," Iglesias told the Washington Post. He also said he regrets not reporting the calls as required by Justice policy.
Former Democratic state senator Manny Aragon's name has been linked to the probe, as well as that of other Democratic politicos. At the time Iglesias said the calls were made, Wilson was locked in a tight battle with Democrat Patricia Madrid in which ethics was a major issue. Iglesias says he now believes he was dismissed by Justice because he did not announce indictments in the courthouse case prior to the November election, an announcement that would have been a political boost for Wilson.
THE MAKING OF A BOMBSHELL
Congressional questions about ongoing cases are supposed to go through the Justice Department's Office of Legislative Affairs to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The U.S. attorney is a political appointment, (Bush appointed Iglesias) but he is expected to keep politics out of the law. A member of Congress pressuring a U.S. attorney would at the least be a significant ethical violation.
At a morning ABQ news conference called to discuss his firing and his future plans, Iglesias again defended his performance in office and said despite Justice's denials, his firing was political. But it was several hours later that the bombshell exploded. It came from a phone interview Iglesias conducted with Marisa Taylor of McClatchy newspapers in which he charged that two members of Congress called him in mid-October to inquire about the federal investigation. Why didn't he also announce this before local reporters? Probably to assure maximum national impact.
Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, GOP Congressman Steve Pearce and Dem U.S. Rep. Tom Udall quickly denied talking with Iglesias. That left Domenici and Wilson, but they refused to comment to either McClatchy, the Washington Post or the blogs. It was left to Justice to fire back at Iglesias saying again that he was ousted for performance related reasons, not politics. The spokesman termed Iglesias's charges "flatly false." It was a similar Justice statement over his job performance made before senate judiciary earlier this month that pushed Iglesias over the edge. In an email to a friend and picked up by this blog on Monday, he reacted by calling his firing nothing less than "a political fragging." Iglesias confirmed the accuracy of our report at his Wednesday news conference.
So what members of Congress called Iglesias in mid October? We first reported in December the insider speculation that Representative Wilson was upset that no indictments had come down in the courthouse case during her campaign with Madrid. Domenici was cited as having the same feelings by the legal insiders, but nothing about direct pressure being placed on Iglesias by them was being mentioned. Clearly, however, they are the pair Iglesias is clearing a trail toward.
THE BATTLEFIELD AHEAD
Dem Senator Schumer, a member of Judiciary, wasted no time pouncing on the red meat thrown his way by Iglesias, announcing on the senate floor that the charges were "very serious” and calling Republican Iglesias "a man of integrity.“ California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein signaled her agreement, setting up future sworn testimony by Iglesias and a possible political donnybrook the likes of which the NM congressional delegation hasn’t seen in years
Reaction across the political spectrum was swift and furious.
"He (Iglesias) went suicide bomber, for sure. He blew up whatever political career he had in the Republican party, but he is extremely upset with the allegations that he was dumped because he did a bad job. Also, he may be having a tough time getting a new job, adding fuel to this fire," said one attorney familiar with the ins and out of the drama.
Iglesias's last day on the job was yesterday. He said he has several job offers in the private sector.
Whatever Iglesias's motives, it is now up to the Democrats in Washington to determine how much hardball they want to play. First, will they ask him to disclose the names of the members of Congress at the center of this storm? Will they then try to determine if Iglesias has any proof of those alleged phone calls; a call log, tape recordings or other witnesses? Would a mention of a particular congressional representative by Iglesias launch official ethics probes? According to Washington insiders, the answer to that last question is "yes." Obviously, such ethics probes would have major political ramifications for any congressional member involved.
"If Iglesias were to point directly at Heather or Pete it could light a fire under the Democrats and get them out on the playing field with strong challengers. The allegations aren't criminal, but they are unethical and they surely have political force," offered up an Alligator in the know.
One wag was already suggesting that Iglesias switch parties and run against Heather. Mama Mia!
Playing against this backdrop is another drama; the one over who succeeds Iglesias. Senator Domenici initially sent four names over to the White House, including that of '06 GOP attorney general candidate Jim Bibb and private ABQ attorney Charles Peifer. But sources in Washington are now telling me that those names are off the list; Bibb for the obvious reason that he is a politician and the White House is being accused with trying to pack U.S. attorneys' offices with political players. The reasons given to me for Peifer apparently no longer being in contention varied.
In another bizarre development in this saga, ABQ criminal defense attorney Jason Bowles, who defended ex-Treasurer Robert Vigil on federal corruption charges, is said by sources in Washington to be under consideration to replace Iglesias! Bowles, 36, teamed with well-known Democratic attorney Sam Bregman to win a mistrial in Vigil's first trial. In the retrial, Vigil, with Bowles by his side, was convicted of only one count of corruption out of two dozen. Bowles is a former assistant U.S. attorney serving during the Clinton years. Is he a Democrat? If so, it's even more weird.
There has been speculation that another reason Iglesias is gone is because the White House, Domenici and Wilson were unhappy with his performance in the Vigil case as well as his reluctance to announce the courthouse indictments prior to the November election.
There is also talk that the White House could turn to an interim appointment because of the mess surrounding the Iglesias departure. Deputy U.S. Attorney Larry Gomez is being mentioned as a possible if that route is taken.
Finding a suitable candidate for a job that may last less than two years (a Democratic President in '09 would name their own prosecutor) and one that is now a political pinata is no easy task, but something will have to be done, whether interim or permanent, and that is expected within days, if not sooner.
The Alligators were besides themselves over the statement of Rep. Steve Pearce quickly denying that he was one of those congressional reps who Iglesias is saying made improper contact with him before the election.
"Did he really have to issue a statement right away? It could be read that Pearce was isolating Heather as the one who made the call." Argued one political veteran.
It's no secret that both Wilson and Pearce have their eye on the Domenici senate seat if and when it becomes available, so fairly or not, all actions of the two are going to be weighed in that context, this imbroglio being the latest example.
As for Pete, one Alligator put it this way: "It appears he is going to at least get some powder burns. Schumer and the Democrats could try to leverage this by putting pressure on Pete to retire. The D's control the senate by only one vote. If they could turn this into an embarrassment for Pete, they will. But if he decided to call it quits, well, that would be different. We'll have to wait and see if this is as big a deal as the Democrats would like it to be," said our legal beagle.
New Mexico Democrats were salivating over the prospects, noting that it is Republicans fighting with each other, with Dems investigating the charges, not leveling them.
THE BOTTOM LINES
At the Roundhouse, that controversial bill to provide a big tax credit to Sithe Global to build a coal-fired plant on the Navajo Nation was permanently tabled by the House Energy Committee yesterday. Las Cruces are Rep. Joni Gutierrez had voted to bring the credit back to life, but yesterday joined with the other committee Democrats and voted to table the proposal. We blogged this one last week noting widespread environmental opposition and the radio ads that were run against the bill.
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