2 in N.M. Del­e­ga­tion Feel Heat Over Fir­ings

Ethics Panel Ex­am­ines Sen. Domenici’s Role

The Washington Post Sunday - - National News - By Paul Kane

As Heather A. Wil­son and Sen. Pete V. Domenici sat in the kitchen of Domenici’s Al­bu­querque home in Jan­uary 1998, the two took the first steps in ce­ment­ing a re­la­tion­ship that now has them fac­ing an­other cross­roads in their ca­reers.

The day af­ter their meet­ing, the sen­a­tor called Wil­son to tell her that he would wade into a con­tested Repub­li­can pri­mary for the first time in his 25-year Se­nate ca­reer, en­dors­ing her bid to rep­re­sent New Mex­ico’s 1st Con­gres­sional Dis­trict and be­gin­ning a part­ner­ship now at the cen­ter of an ethics in­quiry that could help de­ter­mine both their po­lit­i­cal fates.

“She is a fa­vorite child, ab­so­lutely,” said Steve Bell, Domenici’s chief of staff, and a friend and ad­viser to Wil­son — who is a Rhodes Scholar, for­mer Air Force of­fi­cer and for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil an­a­lyst.

To­day, Wil­son and Domenici are fac­ing al­le­ga­tions that Domenici tried to strong-arm a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor in an ef­fort to boost his pro­tege’s chances in her tough­est elec­tion bat­tle.

On Dec. 7, six weeks af­ter re­buff­ing Domenici’s push for in­dict­ments in a cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion of lo­cal Democrats, David C. Igle­sias was fired by the Jus­tice De­part­ment, along with six other U.S. at­tor­neys.

While the dis­missal of Igle­sias and the other prose­cu­tors has put the Jus­tice De­part­ment and the White House on the de­fen­sive, Domenici and Wil­son have pro­vided only care­fully crafted state­ments deny­ing that they pres­sured Igle­sias in their pre­elec­tion phone calls to him. The Se­nate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Ethics has sig­naled the be­gin­ning of a pre­lim­i­nary in­quiry into Domenici’s ac­tions, while the House ethics panel has re­fused to com­ment on whether it will ex­am­ine Wil­son’s con­duct in what Igle­sias now calls a “po­lit­i­cal hit.”

The in­quiry may also fo­cus on the Domenici-Wil­son re­la­tion­ship, which New Mex­ico Democrats al­lege was at the core of Igle­sias’s fir­ing. Bell de­nied that the sen­a­tor pres­sured Igle­sias to boost the re­elec­tion bid of Wil­son, who spent more than $4.7 mil­lion and ul­ti­mately won by 861 votes out of more than 211,000 bal­lots cast. Bell called the al­le­ga­tions “stupid.”

Domenici has said that he will stand for a sev­enth term in 2008, when he will be 76. It has long been as­sumed by Democrats and Repub­li­cans alike that if Domenici re­tired, Wil­son would be the likely nom­i­nee to suc- ceed him, but that may no longer be the nearly sure thing it once was.

The ap­pointed head of the state Chil­dren, Youth and Fam­i­lies De­part­ment, Wil­son had never run for of­fice when, in Jan­uary 1998, GOP Rep. Steven H. Schiff an­nounced that he was re­tir­ing. Domenici, ac­com­pa­nied by Bell, soon found him­self in the kitchen of his late mother’s house in­ter­view­ing Wil­son and her hus­band and pon­der­ing his first-ever en­dorse­ment.

The sen­a­tor was struck by how “ab­so­lutely hon­est, ab­so­lutely fear­less” Wil­son was, Bell said. “That was the be­gin­ning of the ad­ven­ture. It was sub­stan­tially more than an en­dorse­ment.”

Two months later, Schiff passed away af­ter a bat­tle with skin can­cer, and a spe­cial elec­tion was called for June 1998. Wil­son won the back­ing of a lo­cal Repub­li­can com­mit­tee and was nom­i­nated for the spe­cial vote af­ter Domenici per­suaded the mem­bers to sup­port Wil­son. Domenici then dis­patched Bell, as well as his po­lit­i­cal and fi­nance direc­tors, to run Wil­son’s cam­paign against a Demo­cratic mul­ti­mil­lion­aire.

Af­ter a nar­row vic­tory, the sen­a­tor and the new House mem­ber be­came the back­bone of the New Mex­ico Repub­li­can Party. “Pete Domenici is Con­gress­woman Wil­son’s men­tor and a friend,” said En­rique Car­los Knell, Wil­son’s spokesman.

Bell said he hired Wil­son’s first two chiefs of staff. In the spring of 2004, Domenici and Wil­son in­stalled her for­mer fundrais­ing chair­man, Allen Weh, as chair­man of the New Mex­ico Repub­li­can Party. Domenici has headed an­nual fundrais­ing events for Wil­son, in­clud­ing a Septem­ber 2006 event that he co-hosted with Sen. John McCain (RAriz.).

By the fall of 2006, Wil­son was fac­ing her tough­est race in a bru­tal po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, as the Jack Abramoff and Mark Fo­ley (R-Fla.) scan­dals be­came a cen­tral is­sue for Democrats. Wil­son fought back by run­ning ads ac­cus­ing her op­po­nent, then-state At­tor­ney Gen­eral Pa­tri­cia Madrid, of fail­ing to tackle cor­rup­tion, par­tic­u­larly in a court­house­c­on­struc­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volv­ing Democrats.

At the same time, lo­cal Repub­li­cans had been seek­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Democrats over voter-fraud al­le­ga­tions. Weh told McClatchy News­pa­pers early last month that he had com­plained in 2005 about Igle­sias’s lack of voter-fraud prose­cu­tions to a deputy of White House ad­viser Karl Rove. A Rove aide, J. Scott Jen­nings, had served as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Bush-Cheney ’04 re- elec­tion cam­paign in New Mex­ico. He has been sub­poe­naed to tes­tify be­fore the House and Se­nate Ju­di­ciary com­mit­tees.

In his first eval­u­a­tion re­port, in 2002, Igle­sias — a His­panic and evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian whose ser­vice in the Navy Judge Ad­vo­cate Gen­eral’s Corps served as the model for the Tom Cruise char­ac­ter in the film “A Few Good Men” — won ac­co­lades for be­ing “well re­spected” by all law en­force­ment agen­cies and for pro­vid­ing “good lead­er­ship,” doc­u­ments show. Igle­sias placed in the top tier of all 93 U.S. at­tor­neys in March 2005 in a rank­ing sys­tem es­tab­lished by D. Kyle Samp­son, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Al­berto R. Gon­za­les’s chief of staff then.

Later that year, Domenici be­gan com­plain­ing about re­sources for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Al­bu­querque and a back­log of cases. Doc­u­ments show at least three phone calls — in Septem­ber 2005 and Jan­uary and April 2006 — from Domenici to Gon­za­les. In the first week of Oc­to­ber, Domenici called Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Paul J. McNulty to com­plain again, but, ac­cord­ing to Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials, Domenici never specif­i­cally asked for Igle­sias’s fir­ing.

Domenici dis­puted that in his only state­ment on the mat­ter. “This on­go­ing di­a­logue and ex­pe­ri­ence led me, sev­eral months be­fore my [late-Oc­to­ber] call with Mr. Igle­sias, to con­clude and rec­om­mend to the De­part­ment of Jus­tice that New Mex­ico needed a new United States At­tor­ney,” he said.

On Oct. 16, Wil­son called Igle­sias and, ac- cord­ing to her state­ment, re­layed com­plaints that Igle­sias was “in­ten­tion­ally de­lay­ing cor­rup­tion prose­cu­tions.”

The next day, back in Wash­ing­ton, Samp­son sent his fi­nal pre­elec­tion rec­om­men­da­tions for U.S. at­tor­ney fir­ings to an­other top Gon­za­les ad­viser.

De­spite the com­plaints, Igle­sias was still not on the list for dis­missal at that time.

About 10 days af­ter Wil­son’s call, Domenici spoke to Igle­sias and, ac­cord­ing to the sen­a­tor’s ver­sion of events, merely asked about the tim­ing of po­ten­tial in­dict­ments in the court­house case. He de­nied pres­sur­ing Igle­sias.

Igle­sias, how­ever, said that Wil­son asked about “sealed in­dict­ments” in the court­house case, and that Domenici in­quired whether in­dict­ments would come “be­fore Novem­ber.” Domenici hung up on Igle­sias upon learn­ing that his in­ves­ti­ga­tion was likely to go on for some time. (In­dict­ments in the case were handed down on Thurs­day against lo­cal Democrats, in­clud­ing a for­mer state sen­a­tor.)

In tes­ti­mony be­fore the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee on Thurs­day, Samp­son said that, some­time be­tween Oct. 17 and Nov. 7, Igle­sias was added to the fir­ing list.

He said he could not re­mem­ber who added Igle­sias to the list and what the rea­sons were. In that same time frame, Gon­za­les re­layed to Samp­son a com­plaint from Rove about the voter-fraud cases in New Mex­ico, Samp­son said. The White House has ac­knowl­edged that Pres­i­dent Bush him­self had also de­liv­ered com­plaints to Gon­za­les about the voter-fraud cases in the state.

When top Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials met to con­sider the fate of Igle­sias and a few other prose­cu­tors, McNulty spoke up in fa­vor of fir­ing Igle­sias. “All I re­mem­ber is the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral say­ing, ‘Sen­a­tor Domenici won’t mind if he stays on the list,’ ” Samp­son said.

On Elec­tion Day, Nov. 7 — less than two weeks af­ter Domenici’s call to Igle­sias, and as Wil­son was barely sur­viv­ing in her elec­tion cam­paign — Samp­son sent out a new draft of the U.S. at­tor­ney dis­missal chart. Igle­sias was on that list for the first time.

A month later, Igle­sias was fired and Samp­son re­ported to other Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials that Bell was “happy as a clam” upon learn­ing the news.

What was seen as a vic­tory at the time has turned into per­haps the great­est po­lit­i­cal storm in the ca­reer of Domenici, who long ago won the nick­name “St. Pete” from both sup­port­ers and Democrats frus­trated with their in­abil­ity to make a dent in his po­lit­i­cal stand­ing. Col­leagues are stunned to see him en­meshed in such a sit­u­a­tion. “I don’t know any­thing that I can com­pare it to,” said Sen. Jeff Binga­man (D-N.M.), who has served with Domenici for 24 years.

Bell ac­knowl­edged that Domenici has been af­fected by the al­le­ga­tions. “This is some­thing that has had a real im­pact on him,” Bell said. “It’s been a huge dis­ap­point­ment to him, and it’s been a sub­stan­tial dis­trac­tion.”


Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M) talks to a re­porter. Domenici has de­nied im­pro­pri­ety in con­nec­tion with the fir­ing of U.S. At­tor­ney David Igle­sias.

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