By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) acknowledged yesterday that he contacted the U.S. attorney in Albuquerque last year to ask about an ongoing corruption probe of Democrats, but said he "never pressured him nor threatened him in any way."
Domenici also said in a statement that he told the Justice Department it should replace U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias, one of eight federal prosecutors fired in December. But Domenici said the recommendation came before his call to Iglesias about the criminal investigation.
"In retrospect, I regret making that call and I apologize," Domenici said of talking to Iglesias. "However, at no time in that conversation or any other conversation with Mr. Iglesias did I ever tell him what course of action I thought he should take on any legal matter. I have never pressured him nor threatened him in any way."
Legal experts say it violates congressional ethics rules for a senator or House member to communicate with a federal prosecutor regarding an ongoing criminal investigation.
Domenici's remarks came four days after Iglesias alleged that two New Mexico lawmakers called him in mid-October and pressured him about the pace of the investigation. Iglesias said he believes the calls were at the root of his dismissal.
When asked last week about Iglesias's allegations, Domenici said: "I have no idea what he's talking about."
Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) has yet to comment; the rest of the New Mexico congressional delegation has denied placing any calls to Iglesias.
Two sources with knowledge of the calls have said Wilson made the first contact, followed by Domenici about a week later. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be named discussing the matter before a congressional hearing tomorrow.
The Justice Department said last night that Domenici called Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty during the first week of October to discuss Iglesias.
This followed three calls to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in September 2005, January 2006 and April 2006 during which, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said, Domenici "expressed general concerns about the performance of U.S. Attorney Iglesias and questioned whether he was up to the job . . .
"At no time in those calls did the senator mention this corruption case," nor did he specifically ask for Iglesias's ouster, Roehrkasse said.
The spokesman said he is not aware of any similar calls or complaints to the Justice Department from Wilson.
Iglesias and five other fired prosecutors are scheduled to testify tomorrow before Congress. Iglesias declined to comment in detail yesterday on Domenici's statement, saying he was refraining from further public remarks before the hearings.
"As to Senator Domenici's apology, I accept it and look forward to testifying on Tuesday," he said in an e-mail message.
The Senate Ethics Manual advises senators that contact with prosecutors and regulatory agency officials is "generally permitted, where the communication is with the agency and not directed at the court, where the agency is not engaged in an ongoing enforcement, investigative or other quasi-judicial proceeding."
Stanley Brand, an ethics lawyer who served as House counsel in the 1980s, said a senator should contact a federal prosecutor about an ongoing investigation only if he or she has evidence or information related to the probe.
"It's going to precipitate a huge problem," Brand said, warning of a potential review by the Justice Department.
Staff members on the Senate Ethics Committee could not be reached to comment yesterday.
The firings, which had already sparked congressional interest, became more controversial last week with Iglesias's allegations of political interference.
Democrats allege that the Justice Department was sacking qualified prosecutors to reward political cronies, and they have proposed legislation to limit Gonzales's power to appoint interim replacements.
Administration officials acknowledged Friday that the White House approved the unusual firings, in which seven of the prosecutors were called Dec. 7 and asked to resign, even though most had positive job reviews. An eighth prosecutor, in Arkansas, was informed of his firing earlier, opening the job for a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove.
Domenici said in his statement that he called Iglesias to ask about a criminal probe of courthouse construction kickbacks, which the FBI had turned over to Iglesias's office. Officials say the probe centers on a former Democratic state senator; no charges have been filed in the case.
"I asked Mr. Iglesias if he could tell me what was going on in that investigation and give me an idea of what time frame we were looking at," Domenici said. "It was a very brief conversation, which concluded when I was told that the courthouse investigation would be continuing for a lengthy period."
Domenici is not specific about when the call took place, saying only that he made it "late last year." Iglesias said the calls occurred in mid-October.
At that time, Wilson, a close Domenici ally, was locked in a tight reelection battle with state Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D). Their race included widespread discussion of alleged corruption among New Mexico Democrats.
Domenici said his unhappiness with Iglesias began before he inquired about the probe of Democrats. He said he was concerned about resource problems in the U.S. attorney's office and "an inability within the office to move more quickly on cases."
"This ongoing dialogue and experience led me, several months before my call with Mr. Iglesias, to conclude and recommend to the Department of Justice that New Mexico needed a new United States attorney," Domenici said.
Justice officials have said they were never notified that lawmakers had called Iglesias and have said the issue did not play a role in his firing. Iglesias has acknowledged he erred by not informing Washington officials about the calls, as Justice rules require.
The House Judiciary subcommittee has issued subpoenas for Iglesias, Bud Cummins of Little Rock, Carol Lam of San Diego and John McKay of Seattle. The Senate Judiciary Committee has also asked Daniel Bogden of Las Vegas and Paul K. Charlton of Phoenix to testify, in addition to the four others.
"No one believes anymore these U.S. attorneys were fired for any good reason," said Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, "and we will start to uncover the real truth at our hearing on Tuesday."
In a related matter, administration officials said they were mistaken in saying that McNulty consulted his predecessor, James B. Comey, about some of the U.S. attorneys before they were fired. Comey was not consulted, the officials said.
Staff writer John Solomon and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.