Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Iglesias Digs A Deep Hole For Heather & Pete; Can They Climb Out? Ethics Probes Loom; D.C. Drama Grips NM; Complete Blog Coverage 

In riveting testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday former NM U.S. Attorney David Iglesias performed like a trick dog doing back flips as Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) led him through a series of questions that laid the groundwork for ethics investigations of GOP Senator Pete Domenici and ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson. Committee Republicans were mild in their pursuit of Iglesias, seeming to signal no strong opposition to having the Senate Ethics Committee move ahead with a probe of Domenici's actions.

(The key moments of Iglesias's testimony can be seen here.)

A House judiciary subcommittee was treated to a similar Iglesias performance Tuesday and the ethics committee in that chamber is expected to be prodded into an investigation of Wilson. Domenici and Wilson now must prepare for the prospect of being pinned down for months, dealing with what has now arguably become the most controversial episode involving the New Mexico congressional delegation in state history.

The gravity of Iglesias's statements accusing the senator and Wilson of putting undue pressure on him to speed up indictments in a corruption case involving state Democrats hit home since this was sworn testimony, not a political statement.

And Iglesias put flesh on the bones of his key intimidation accusation. He explained that Domenici called him at home, not the office, in late October 2006 asking if indictments were going to be issued soon in the courthouse construction investigation. Also adding a new dimension to the intimidation argument was the revelation that Domenici chief of staff Steve Bell--the "Shadow Senator"--first came on the line to tell Iglesias Pete wanted to speak with him.

It reminded one Alligator of that scene in Godfather II where Michael Corleone reacts to a murder attempt at his home. "In my home, where my children sleep!" Raged Michael. And Iglesias noted that he was in the bedroom of his home with his wife when the senatorial call came. The conversation ended, Iglesias said, with Domenici hanging up the phone when he was told by Iglesias that indictments would not be coming before the November election. "I felt sick afterward." Iglesias testified.


Domenici argued in a statement issued after the Iglesias appearance that the former prosecutor had failed to make his case that he was being pressured.

"Mr. Iglesias confirmed that...my words did not threaten him, nor did I direct him to take any course of action...I asked Mr. Iglesias about timing of the investigation, neither I nor those who overheard my side of the brief conversation recall my mentioning the November election to him. When I was first asked, in response to a chorus of questions, about whether I pressured or threatened Mr. Iglesias, I responded that I did not know what he was talking about. Today he testified that he “felt violated.” I still do not know what he is talking about. In his own testimony, Mr. Iglesias confirmed that nothing I actually said was threatening or directive. I did not pressure him..." Domenici contended.

Who was that who overhead the conversation? Just Bell? Or was there someone else who can corroborate? The definition of being threatened or intimidated is not cut and dry either. The very act of calling him to ask about the indictments, especially at home, was enough for Iglesias. It would be interesting to know if Iglesias, at the time of the October call, knew of Domenici's ongoing effort to have Justice fire him beginning in September of '05. If he had, it would not take a hammer over his head to make Iglesias feel intimidated by the powerful senior senator. But it was the atmospherics that Iglesias pointed to as the foundation of the intimidation. The call to his home, Bell importantly announcing that the senator had complaints about him and wanted to speak with him and the abrupt hanging up of the phone by Domenici were the events that Iglesias believed amounted to undue pressure. That's plenty for the Senate Ethics Committee which has opened a "preliminary inquiry."

It's true that Domenici often hangs up the phone abruptly. How do I know? I interviewed him many times in the 70's for radio programs and he did it then. If that alone were the problem,
Pete would be off the hook. But it isn't.

On another point, the AP reported last week that it asked Domenici if he had "contacted" Iglesias after Iglesias first told the public of Domenici's October phone call. "I have no idea what he's talking about." Responded Domenici. In his statement last night, Domenici says that response was to "a chorus of questions about whether I threatened or pressured Mr. Iglesias," not whether he had contacted him.

Domenici was accused of lying when he admitted over the weekend to making the phone call to Iglesias. Critics pointed to his previous statement to the AP of "I don't know what he's talking about." Unless the AP report is erroneous, Domenici's latest statement has him applying his answer to a different question than the news agency reported it asked.

Rep. Wilson
There was a new twist when Iglesias discussed the call Rep. Wilson made to him October 16th, two weeks before the Domenici call. He said Heather inquired about "sealed indictments" in the courthouse case. "She had been hearing about sealed indictments. What can you tell me about sealed indictments? Red flags went up. We cannot talk about sealed indictments." Iglesias testified. He then said he told Wilson that prosecutors sometimes use sealed indictments in national security cases. "She was not happy with that answer." Iglesias told the senators.

How did Wilson learn of "sealed indictments?" Were there news reports of "sealed" indictments? Not that we are aware of. The federal grand jury proceedings are secret. Did someone in Iglesias's office tip her off? Or did Iglesias just not hear right? The courthouse indictments are expected to be announced within weeks, but earlier predictions on the timing have not been accurate. Meanwhile, the same citizens group that filed an ethics complaint against Domenici did the same with Wilson.


If Iglesias "felt sick," after that call from Domenici, why didn't he immediately call his superiors at Justice and tell them he was being strong-armed? It's a failure Iglesias has admitted to and Tuesday he said it was due to the "loyalty" he felt to Domenici who had recommended him for his job. Why didn't he report Wilson for her errant call? Because, he said, he considered her a friend. Was he more concerned with losing his job than doing his job by reporting the calls? And was he embarrassed to admit that before the nation? It's reasonable speculation. Iglesias was fired by Justice December 7, after repeated calls from Domenici that dated back to September 2005. He then turned on Domenici and Wilson with a vengeance.


The only good news for Pete and Heather Tuesday was the Scooter Libby verdict coming down during the Iglesias testimony and diverting, if only momentarily, attention from their own problems. But it didn't last long. Demonstrating how the scandal has grown from a toddler to a teenager in a matter of days, the subject of Domenici and Iglesias came up at the White House briefing. There, a spokesman was asked if the Senator had informed the White House about his desire to get rid of Iglesias. The spokesman confirmed that he had. Now the question is what reasons Pete gave the White House for wanting Iglesias out.

These and other issues provide plenty of nourishing fodder for the ethics enforcers to munch on and determine what, if any, specific House and Senate rules may have been violated. That's not good for Wilson and Domenici because it could mean ongoing news stories as the investigation progresses. They can be expected to do all they can in the coming days to have any probes conclude rapidly. But in a reversal of fortune, they no longer have power over events. The Democrats control the Congress.


Another reason was offered by the Justice department Tuesday for Iglesias getting the ax. A spokesman told the House subcommittee that Iglesias was out because "he delegated" too much responsibility to his deputy. Iglesias maintains the ax came because he refused to speed up the indictments.


On the political front, the state Democratic party released a statement focusing on Heather and Pete's insistence that it was constituent complaints that led them to contact Iglesias about the courthouse corruption case.

"Wilson’s and Domenici’s initial attempts to stonewall the media only highlighted their guilty conduct. Domenici and Wilson finally admitted in written statements that they phoned Iglesias. Although their statements seem waffling and inconsistent, both Wilson and Domenici disingenuously blame constituents for prompting them to violate congressional ethics rules." The party blasted.

Democrats weighing in on the scandal think it's pretty simple. They say Wilson panicked when she found herself down in the polls in mid-October and called Iglesias in the hope of speeding up the courthouse indictments which she believed would name several Democrats and give her re-election a badly needed boost. Wilson had made the ethics of her Democratic opponent, Patricia Madrid, a major campaign issue.

The Democrats story line has Wilson upset that her phone call did not get the expected results and that she called Domenici and Bell and asked them to call Iglesias. According to this theory, they did, and, as they say, the rest is history.


Speculation on the future of Domenici and Wilson was rampant as Iglesias named their names. I fielded calls from the Los Angeles Times (article here) and Congressional Quarterly as well as a number of my readers. As the frenzy built, the Alligators pondered all conceivable angles. Would Senator Schumer and company try some friendly but firm persuasion to convince Pete not to seek another term next year? If Pete does retire, what Democrats will emerge? Is Heather's hopes for the Senate now hopeless in light of Iglesias's sworn testimony? What about getting re-elected to the U.S. House? And will we have some polls soon showing where Pete and her stand post-scandal? KRQE-TV did an Internet poll last night that showed 67% of the respondents thought Domenici and Wilson's behavior in the Iglesias affair was inappropriate.

So it went on what was an historic day; a day in which the earth shifted under our feet and changed the assumptions under which the fine art of La Politica is practiced.

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