U.S. Attorney Scandal: Feds Probe Domenici for Obstruction of Justice In Iglesias Firing

A federal grand jury probe of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys during the Bush administration is focusing on the role played by recently retired Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and former senior Bush White House aides in the 2006 dismissal of David Iglesias as U.S. attorney for New Mexico, according to legal sources familiar with the inquiry.

The federal grand jury is investigating whether Domenici and other political figures attempted to improperly press Iglesias to bring a criminal prosecution against New Mexico Democrats just prior to the 2006 congressional midterm elections, according to legal sources close to the investigation and private attorneys representing officials who prosecutors want to question.  Investigators appear to be scrutinizing Iglesias’ firing in the context of whether he was fired in retaliation because Domenici and others believed that he would not manipulate the timing of prosecutions to help Republicans.

Previously, Domenici was severely criticized by two internal Justice Department watchdog offices, the Department’s Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), for refusing to cooperate with their earlier probe of the firings of the U.S. attorneys. In part because of their frustration that Domenici and his chief of staff, Steve Bell, as well as several senior White House officials, would not cooperate with them, the Inspector General and OPR sought that a criminal prosecutor take over their probe. It is unclear whether Domenici will now cooperate with the criminal probe. Domenici’s attorney, Lee Blalack, in an interview, declined to say what Domenici will do when he is contacted by investigators.

The focus of the grand jury probe was described by a federal law enforcement official, two witnesses who have been recently been asked to answer questions from investigators, and an attorney representing a former Justice Department official who has been told that investigators want to question his client.  People who had been contacted by investigators spoke on the condition that they not be named because they did not want to upset federal law enforcement officials who would question and investigate them and also because they believe that simply being questioned might unfairly tarnish their reputations.

Nora DannehyThe grand jury investigation is currently being led by Nora Dannehy, the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut.  Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey named Dannehy to “determine whether any prosecutable offense was committed” in the course of the firings following September’s report by the Inspector General and OPR on the firings.

The report found that Iglesias was fired largely as a result of complaints made to the White House by Domenici and Bell. But the report also concluded that the probe was severely “hindered” by the refusal by Domenici, Bell, and several senior Bush administration officials to cooperate with the investigation. In its report, Justice’s Inspector General and OPR provided some insight as to what potential crimes might have been omitted, and why they wanted a criminal prosecutor to take over their probe: “It is possible that those seeking Iglesias’ removal did so simply because they believed he was not competently prosecuting worthwhile cases,” the investigators wrote:

However, if they attempted to pressure Iglesias to accelerate his charging decision in the courthouse case or to initiate voting fraud investigations to affect the outcome of the upcoming election, their conduct may have been criminal. The obstruction of justice makes it a crime for any person who `corruptly… influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice…’

While we found no case charging a violation of the obstruction of justice statute involving an effort to accelerate a criminal prosecutor to indict a case for partisan political reasons, we believe that pressuring a prosecutor to indict a case more quickly to affect the outcome of an upcoming election could be a corrupt attempt to influence the prosecution in violation of the obstruction of justice statute.

Blalack, a partner with the law firm of O’Melveny and Myers, who is representing Domenici in his dealings with the Justice Department, declined to discuss anything related to the matter, including whether his client will cooperate with prosecutors conducting the current federal grand jury probe. Domenici retired from office earlier this year, after having spent 36 years in the Senate, many of them as either the chairman or the ranking minority member of the Senate Budge Committee, and more recently as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Michael Madigan, an attorney representing Bell, did not respond to several telephone and email requests for a comment for this story.

The Justice Department’s Inspector General and OPR said in the report already made public that Domenici and other New Mexico Republicans were upset that Iglesias and other influential New Mexico political officeholders and political operatives were upset with Iglesias for not aggressively enough pursuing potential political corruption and voting fraud cases against New Mexico Democrats.

Rep. Heather WilsonAt the time that Domenici contacted Iglesias about the potential criminal prosecution, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) was in the midst of a razor-thin reelection bid, and Domenici and Wilson both believed criminal indictments brought against Democrats on the eve of the election would bolster Wilson’s reelection bid.

In their report about the firings, Justice’s Inspector General and OPR disclosed that Domenici called then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on at least three occasions in 2005 and 2006 to complain about Iglesias, as well as calling then-Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to make a fourth such complaint.

During the same period of time, Domenici’s staffer Bell repeatedly emailed and spoke to Rove and other White House officials complaining about Iglesias or seeking his removal. The White House in turn relayed those complaints and similar ones by prominent Republican politicians and political operatives from New Mexico to political appointees in the Justice Department.

Several of the complaints by Domenici and other New Mexico Republicans to the Justice Department and White House centered on their claim that Iglesias was not aggressively enough pursuing alleged voter fraud cases by Democrats or activist groups associated with the Democratic party.

The report by the two Justice Department watchdog agencies concluded that some White House officials “believed that fraudulent registration by Democratic Party voters in New Mexico was a widespread problem and that it had cost President Bush the state in the 2000 Presidential election.”

Iglesias has said that he aggressively pursued allegations of voter fraud–even setting up a task force to do examine the issue in part because of being pressed to do so by New Mexico Republicans– only for career prosecutors and FBI agents to conclude that there no widespread voter fraud existed and there were no cases that could be prosecuted.

On Oct. 26, 2006, only days before the crucial 2006 congressional midterm elections, Justice Department investigators wrote, Domenici telephoned Iglesias to inquire about an ongoing corruption case that Iglesias’ office was pursuing.

David IglesiasIglesias’ office was investigating allegations that bribes were paid by contractors in connection with the construction of a new country courthouse. Democratic officials were primarily under investigation, and New Mexico Republicans, were hopeful that indictments might be brought before Election Day. Domenici was in large part interested in learning whether charges were going to be brought before Election Day, in part, because Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) was locked in a razor-thin re-election fight for her congressional seat. Domenici, according to Iglesias’ account to investigators, inquired whether federal criminal charges were going to be brought in time for Election Day.

After Iglesias told Domenici he did not think so, Domenici replied, according to Iglesias, “Well, I’m very sorry to hear that.” Iglesias said that Domenici then abruptly hung up the telephone.

Iglesias told investigators he “felt ill after the call” and that he had “believed Domenici had asked for confidential information about an ongoing investigation, and that Iglesias would pay in some way for refusing to cooperate with him.”

Although Domenici has refused to be interviewed by the Justice Department, and also declined to comment for this story, he said in a statement in March 2007 that “in retrospect I regret making that call and apologize” and that he had “never pressured [Iglesias] or threatened him in any way.”

Less than two weeks after his telephone conversation with Domenici, on Dec. 7, 2006, Iglesias was fired as U.S. Attorney.

That very day of the firing, Deputy White House counsel William K. Kelley emailed then-Attorney General Gonzales’ chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to report: “Domenici’s COS [chief of staff] is happy as a clam.” It is unclear whether Kelley, who refused to cooperate with the IG and OPR investigation will cooperate now that a criminal investigation was underway. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Wilson herself also called Iglesias shortly before Election Day, on Oct. 16, 2006, to complain that Iglesias was delaying prosecuting Democrats in regards to the courthouse case and that such delays might be harming her reelection campaign.

Karl RoveShortly after Wilson narrowly won re-election, on Nov. 15, 2006, she told Justice Department investigators, she encountered Karl Rove at a meeting of congressional Republicans and told him “for what it’s worth, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico is a waste of breath.” Rove responded, she said, by telling her: “The decision has already been made. He is gone.”

(ed.note: Murray Waas is a longtime investigative reporter based in Washington D.C.)

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