2 in N.M. Delegation Feel Heat Over Firings
Ethics Panel Examines Sen. Domenici’s Role
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.