Monday, February 09, 2009
The Big Bill Investigation: We Go Inside And In-Depth With Our Top Sources; US Attorney Fouratt: Pressure For A Resolution? How Long A Wait?
US Attorney Fouratt
Impatience and frustration are starting to surface regarding the federal pay-to-play probe into Big Bill's adminstration, with top legal and political sources--several with no dog in the fight--wondering aloud just how long the state is going to operate under its shadow. Their key questions: What role, if any, is politics playing in this drama? And why, after more than six months of investigation, has the case not produced indictments or otherwise been resolved?
A question you hear often is whether the federal grand jury now meeting on the pay-to-play probe is the same group of grand jurors who handled the case starting in the summer of 2008. That grand jury's one year term ended in December. Since it became clear the case would continue, it was widely expected that the same jurors would have their term extended for another year. That is now being openly questioned. Several sources say the original jurors on the corruption case are gone. If new grand jurors indeed took over, is that an indication that the case doesn't have much legs? Why would all that work not be carried on by the same grand jury, especially if the prosecutors were headed towards indictments?
Another question being asked: Did the prosecution team led by US Attorney Greg Fouratt recently visit with the US Justice Department's Public Integrity Section about the case? If so, what was that office's take on the NM probe? The office oversees the federal effort to combat corruption through the prosecution of elected and appointed public officials at all levels of government. Press leaks have confirmed that just about everyone possibly connected with the case has now testified--some more than once. So, shouldn't everyone know by now if there is any steak here, or just sizzle?
The Legal Beagles speculate that after this length of time some resolution could be expected. In fact, a month ago a local Republican attorney, claiming he had inside information, published on a Web site the actual day he said indictments would come down. That date came and went.
WORLD WITHOUT END
What makes this case especially difficult is that there is no expiration date on a federal investigation. You have the right to a speedy trial but not to a speedy indictment or a clearing of your name. It can go on and on at the discretion of the prosecution. And when it ends, there is no official announcement. It can be Kafkaesque--an exasperating and often terrifying prospect to those whose names are being mentioned month after month. Reputations, as well as political and economic futures, are on the line. In this case, you could argue that New Mexico's reputation as a place to do business takes a hit as the investigatory shadow is cast. Others can argue no matter how long it takes, if the end result is cleaning up the state, in the long run we will benefit economically and otherwise.
THAT OTHER DRAMA
Playing out along side the legal drama is the political drama for the position of US Attorney for New Mexico. It is currently held by Republican Fouratt, 44, who was appointed to the post in January 2008 by the state's federal judges. Because of the national US Attorney scandal, neither Fouratt or his predecessor had their names sent by President Bush to the United States Senate for confirmation. But Fouratt, a Roswell High School graduate who took his undergraduate degree at NM State University, has made overtures in the press indicating he would like the presidential appointment. That has given ammunition to his critics which we will get to, but first here's an excerpt from The Associated Press interview that moved on the wires late last week:
There's a lot to like about this job," Fouratt said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If I could be helpful staying in this position, then I would be privileged to stay. If it is the plan that I return to life as a line prosecutor, then I'll help from that position."
The US Attorney position is presumed to be frozen because of the investigation of the Governor and his aides. Political operatives believe the White House is not about to change leadership during a sensitive corruption investigation. It has already announced there would be no immediate changes in US Attorney positions anywhere. An immediate change would put the White House at risk of being charged with partisan politics. But that circumstance has given rise to criticism that the current US Attorney has an incentive to keep the pay-to-play case going in order to lengthen his stay as US Attorney or even win the appointment.
Before being named US Attorney, Fouratt, who took his law degree at Texas Tech, was an assistant US Attorney, a position he said he would return to if he does not receive the appointment. It is extremely unlikely that the Democratic President would choose a Republican US Attorney. If he did, it would be a first in the modern era.
THE FOURATT FILE
The corruption case involving the NM governor is under Fouratt's supervision, but we're told the day-to-day work is done by a small team of prosecutors working with the FBI and other federal agencies. The grand jury hearing the case also hears a variety of other federal cases brought before them. They spend only a portion of their time on the corruption case.
Fouratt is a respected professional who won kudos for his successful corruption prosecution of Democratic powerhouse Manny Aragon, but the stakes are now even higher and the bright lights of La Politica that much brighter. Fouratt, who achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the NM Air National Guard, is not humble about his chief career accomplishment. Here's what he told The AP about the Aragon case :
In my judgment, that is the most significant result to issue from a federal court in New Mexico since we were granted statehood in 1912. It has been an unparalleled success in our efforts to change the way New Mexico's state government operates.
Of course, the Aragon case was begun under former US Attorney David Iglesias. And it was the interference in that case by GOP Senator Pete Domenici that continues to be under investigation by another federal grand jury. Also, it could be argued that the successful corruption prosecution under Iglesias of two State Treasurers may equal, if not surpass, the historic importance of the Aragon prosecution.
Be that as it may, Fouratt's zeal has been welcomed in a state with a long history of ethical misbehavior. He has received the editorial support of the Democratic oriented Santa Fe Mexican to maintain his post as US Attorney. They have urged the President not to appoint a replacement during the Richardson probe. But the question lingers: For how long should the President wait? Does such support, as voiced editorially, have a shelf life? And should it?
US ATTORNEY APPOINTMENT
The appointment of the US Attorney traditionally changes with a new administration. That is a check on any one political party accumulating too much power over the federal judicial system. The state's senior Senator of the party in power--in this case Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman--has the primary say on who will get the position. He recommends his choice to the President. Sources familiar with the Senator's thinking say not to expect anything soon. They say he realizes the sensitivity of replacing a US Attorney in the middle of a pay-to-play probe of a Governor of his own party. But if the investigation drags on with no visible results, the Senator will have to make a decision on when enough is enough. After all, the New Mexico public has the right to a federal prosecutor who has been thoroughly vetted and voted upon by the United States Senate.
Prominent names that have circulated for the position include Santa Fe's John Pound, ABQ's public safety head Pete Dinelli and ABQ State Rep. Al Park, among others.
IS PAST PROLOGUE?
Veterans of La Politica are watching the investigation of Richardson and company with a sense of deja vu. In 1986, it was reported that GOP US Attorney Bill Lutz was investigating the personal taxes of then Democratic Governor Toney Anaya. Lutz said he wanted to determine if Anaya enriched himself with public funds through real estate deals, payoffs from contractors and businesses. Anaya was under scrutiny for months and finally had had enough. He called a news conference asking that Lutz either put up or shut up. Lutz did neither and Anaya carried the day.
Richardson has been subdued in his reaction to the probe, but insiders say he has been frustrated and resents the time the investigation gobbles up as he is asked to consult with his lawyers. He has refrained from injecting the notion of politics into the investigation which has already cost him the position of commerce secretary in the President's cabinet. Who wants to taunt a prosecutor with a blank indictment in his hand? Still, there are rumblings from some close to this Governor that the time could soon come for him to consider taking the path trod by Governor Anaya.
If Big Bill is in a tight spot, so is Fouratt. If he indicts aides to the Governor, he still has to win the case. If legal analysts are to be believed, the accumulated evidence is anything but cut and dry. Greg Fouratt holds important cards, but who holds the highest hand has yet to be determined.
HYPOCRISY OVER HUBBY?
The readers are eagle-eyed and intense this legislative session. It's ABQ GOP State Senator Sue Wilson Beffort coming under the scope in this e-mail:
...Senator Sue Wilson Beffort introduced a bill to cut the salaries of exempt employees who make more than $75,000 annually by 10% (exempting public education officials, as well as the judicial and legislative branches). Isn't Senator Beffort's husband a former cabinet secretary under Gov. Johnson (who made more than $85,000 a year), and currently one of those vice-presidents at UNM who is making more than $200,000 year? "I feel it's fair to put everything on the table," she says. How about your husband's salary? The hypocrisy in Santa Fe is now coming full circle, and getting more ridiculous by the day!
Now that's what you call an Alligator strike...
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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2009
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