2 in N.M. Delegation Feel Heat Over Firings
Sunday, April 1, 2007
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 succeed 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.