By Paul Kane and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) acknowledged yesterday that she contacted a federal prosecutor to complain about the pace of his public corruption investigations, as the Senate ethics committee signaled that it had opened a preliminary inquiry into a similar communication by her state's senior senator, Pete V. Domenici (R).
Wilson denied allegations from former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias that she pressured him to speed up a political corruption investigation involving Democrats in the waning days of her tight election campaign last fall.
"I did not ask about the timing of any indictments and I did not tell Mr. Iglesias what course of action I thought he should take or pressure him in any way," Wilson said in a statement to The Washington Post. "The conversation was brief and professional."
Iglesias, one of seven U.S. attorneys fired by the Justice Department on Dec. 7, is expected to tell Congress today that Wilson and Domenici were trying to sway the course of his investigation. Domenici acknowledged Sunday that he called Iglesias about the corruption case but said he did not pressure him. The telephone calls to Iglesias by Domenici and Wilson appear to put them in conflict with congressional ethics rules that bar contacts with federal agency officials during most active investigations.
The furor over Domenici and Wilson has rapidly become the focus of the dispute over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and a change in law that allows Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to appoint interim prosecutors for an indefinite period of time. The Justice Department has said that seven of the prosecutors were dismissed for failing to follow Bush administration policy on multiple issues, and acknowledged that one was sacked to make way for an ally of White House political adviser Karl Rove.
But most of the prosecutors have cited positive job reviews, and Democrats have alleged that there were political motivations behind the firings.
"Each of us was fully aware that we served at the pleasure of the president, and that we could be removed for any or no reason," six of the prosecutors said in a statement released yesterday. "In most of our cases, we were given little or no information about the reason for the request for our resignations."
Iglesias and three other ousted prosecutors are scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning. The same group and two others are slated to testify in the afternoon before a House Judiciary subcommittee.
The Senate Ethics Committee released a statement yesterday evening declining to address the allegations against Domenici, but it said that anytime a legitimate complaint is filed against a senator, a preliminary inquiry is begun. The statement, from the chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the committee's ranking Republican, noted that preliminary inquiries can lead to wider investigations.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning advocacy group, filed a complaint against Domenici with the committee yesterday.
Wilson said in her statement that many of her constituents had complained about "the slow pace of federal prosecutions" in corruption cases and that one unidentified constituent told her that "Iglesias was intentionally delaying corruption investigations."
Wilson also said she was trying to help Iglesias. "If the purpose of my call has somehow been misperceived, I am sorry for any confusion. I thought it was important for Mr. Iglesias to receive this information and, if necessary, have the opportunity to clear his name."
Wilson said Iglesias's dismissal occurred "without input from me." Justice officials said they are not aware of any contacts by Wilson about Iglesias. But they said Sunday that Domenici complained about him to Gonzales three times in 2005 and 2006 and spoke to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty in the first week of October 2006.
Also yesterday, the senior Justice Department official who carried out the attorney firings announced his resignation but said his departure was not related to the dismissals.
Michael A. Battle, who has headed the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys since 2005, said in a statement that he began considering outside employment last June. His last day will be in mid-March, officials said.
Battle called seven U.S. attorneys on Dec. 7 and notified them that they were being asked to leave. He notified then-Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins of his dismissal in June.
The ethical quandary facing Domenici and Wilson heightens the political pressures that both are facing at home, where Democrats are touting the Iglesias allegations with one eye on attacking the Bush White House and the other on two seats they consider vulnerable in 2008.
There has been speculation in both parties that Domenici, a 34-year veteran of the Senate, may not run for a seventh term next year, when he will turn 76. He held a large fundraiser in Albuquerque two weeks ago that was meant to give notice of his intention to run again, and aides and outside advisers maintained yesterday that the latest flap will not change his plans.
But the potential for an ethics review of his actions has independent analysts discussing the possible political fallout for the otherwise popular Domenici. Wilson, the heir apparent to his seat, won reelection in November by fewer than 1,000 votes.
"You're having an impact on the Senate race either way -- whether he stays or not," said Amy Walter, a handicapper with the Cook Political Report.
An inquiry into Wilson's actions could impair what Walter called Wilson's "outsider" reputation. "It calls into question those skills," she said.
Before the scandal erupted, the Rothenberg Political Report, another independent handicapper, listed Wilson as one of the dozen most-endangered House Republicans.