By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
At 9 a.m. on the very edge of the dusty, desolate collection of adobe homes and Vietnamese restaurants that seem to form this city, David Iglesias begins his run through the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. This is not easy terrain. The footing is terribly uneven. The altitude can be unbearable. At certain times one can hear the grumbling of mountain lions and the feasting of coyotes.
But here in the thin air and the narrow, rocky paths is where the 49-year-old Iglesias says he finds mental and moral clarity. Lord knows he could use it. In the past few months, events have forced Iglesias to question the very nature of loyalty and his own beliefs. Once he was a man whose belief in the integrity of the Republican Party earned him a political plum. Now he is a pariah.
As one of nine U.S. attorneys forced from their posts by the Bush administration, Iglesias is at the center of a scandal that's led to congressional hearings and the resignations of four top Justice Department officials. And though he's been temporarily relegated to chauffeur for his four daughters, he's also managed to transform himself from fired public servant into a fairly noisy poster boy for good government. During congressional hearings in March, Iglesias testified he resisted when two of the state's highest elected officials "leaned on" him to speed up an indictment of Democrats. More recently, when sitting down with Bill Maher on his HBO show, Iglesias quipped, "I took an oath to support and defend the constitution, not the Republican Party of New Mexico."
Maher was just one stop on the Iglesias media tour. In embracing the collective lens, Iglesias racked up televised appearances with, among others, Chris Matthews, Larry King, Katie Couric, Tim Russert and Chris Wallace. Strong-jawed and clean-shaven, said to have inspired the dreamy prosecutor played by Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men," a White House Fellow during the Clinton administration, he's become both the handsome, charismatic public face for the sacked attorneys and a genuine media star. And damn if he hasn't enjoyed it.
"I've loved it," he says. "It's a good fit. It feels really natural. I'll tell you what, from an exposure point of view it's been incredible. Had I stayed a U.S. attorney and not gotten forced to resign, no one would know who I was outside of New Mexico. In a perverse way this has already put me on the national map. My own test is: If it's a show I've heard of, I'll probably do it."
Iglesias was just as eager when he took the U.S. attorney job in 2001. As a well-known Republican who narrowly lost the race for the state's attorney general post in 1998, he promised to give his job "my blood, my sweat and my tears." And for five years he appears to have done just that. Pursuing immigration and corruption cases, he earned positive evaluations from the Justice Department for his work.
In January of 2006, he received a letter commending him for "exemplary leadership in the department's priority programs." It was signed by Michael A. Battle, head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys.
The political pressure kicked in last fall. That was when Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), locked in a heated reelection bid with state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, called Iglesias to ask about sealed indictments involving corruption charges against Democratic officials. Iglesias's onetime political rabbi, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, followed up with a similar call to Iglesias at his home, in which Iglesias says Domenici expressed displeasure that Iglesias wouldn't be filing charges before November (and, hint, the elections).
Around the same time Iglesias had lunch with Patrick Rogers, a lawyer in private practice with strong ties to the state's Republican Party. Iglesias says he arranged the lunch -- also attended by his executive assistant -- because he was aware of Rogers's complaints about his office and now wanted to clear the air.
"I wanted him off my back," says Iglesias.
Rogers has another view of the situation. He said Iglesias was unaware of both widespread complaints and news reports on public corruption. He also says that Iglesias's mismanagement allowed the statute of limitations to run out on a number of cases. "He's made a whole collection of statements that have gone unchallenged," Rogers says. "David's colorful bumper-sticker statements have nothing to do with reality. I guess I like my heroes made of sterner stuff than Iglesias."
The sacking came without warning, on Dec. 7. He'd been in transit, ready to board a flight from Baltimore to Albuquerque, when his phone rang. Battle, the complimentary letter-writer, was on the phone, asking for his resignation. No explanation, Iglesias says, just word that the orders had come from "on high." He felt sucker-punched, angry and depressed; his four-hour flight seemed to go on for days.
Back home, he told his wife, Cyndy, and his shock became hers. For weeks she sat with him in their backyard hot tub, trying to retrace the steps. David could not sleep, nor could he concentrate at work. One day he found Cyndy weeping, face-down on the carpet of their bedroom closet.
"For me it was hard," Cyndy says over lunch at El Pinto, the restaurant where Iglesias first met then-candidate George W. Bush in 2000 and where he had his recent going-away party.
"[David] was the golden child of the Republican Party," Cyndy says. "The same group that rallied behind him, helped him get the nomination, turned on him. For me it was a real sense of betrayal."A New Set of Friends
He hoped he would learn answers about what happened to him, and why, when Gonzales testified last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But "it was a huge disappointment," Iglesias says. "He made the impression that he didn't know what he was doing. He made it seem like he over-delegated, that he didn't know what was going on. I was hoping that at the end of the session we'd have an idea of who made the decision and when. Those two questions weren't answered."
Adding to her husband's comments, Cyndy says, "I would say my opinion changed from being really angry at him to feeling sorry for him. He just seemed so incompetent. All he said was 'I don't know, I don't know. I don't remember.' "
Such feelings extend well beyond Gonzales to the Republican Party itself. As a Hispanic evangelical Christian, Iglesias was "GOP gold," an Albuquerque Tribune columnist declared in 2001. Now a "disaffected Republican," Iglesias continues to support all the articles of modern Republican faith. But while Iglesias still opposes abortion and supports the rights of gun owners, he's developed a softer stance toward those on the other side of the aisle.
"I've seen how Democrats have really reached out and helped me," Iglesias says. "This whole scandal has really made me appreciate different people more. The people who stuck it to me are people who share [the same values]. The people who have helped me -- the Schumers, the Leahys, the Feinsteins -- have value systems different than mine."
But if betrayed by his onetime political allies, Iglesias has forged a new, tight kinship with the other former U.S. attorneys. Like other members of the group, he'd planned to step down quietly and slip into private life. He even asked for a recommendation from Gonzales through the attorney general's former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, which Sampson gladly approved.
That all changed when former U.S. deputy attorney general Paul McNulty -- who resigned May 14 -- said all but one of the dismissals were based on "performance" issues. In turn, McNulty's comments created a militant, galvanized, vocal force banded together from all over the country, out to put things right. Alone they were vulnerable. Together they've become a real-life Justice League -- without, you know, the masks and capes and superpowers. The group's members speak regularly with one another on conference calls and do public appearances together.
"I honestly believed if Paul McNulty had been honest that there were no issues of performance -- that there were some political reasons -- and briefed senators in private, this wouldn't have gone anywhere," Iglesias says. "We knew we were political creatures. We got there through a political process."
Instead, Iglesias says the one-time prosecutors have bonded as "brothers and sisters under fire."
"It's like being in boot camp or being hazed in a fraternity," says Bud Cummins, who was a U.S. attorney in Arkansas.
Not all of them share Iglesias's zest for the spotlight. When asked whether this all had been a good experience for everyone, Washington state's John McKay says: "No, not at all. I think it was a bad thing. I wasn't looking for attention, and it was pretty miserable, quite frankly. Others have said, 'Oh boy, it's good you got all this attention.' I'm never going to feel that way."Defining Moments
If Iglesias finds positive aspects to this whole ordeal, perhaps it's because his own story could pass for a church testimonial. A man of Kuna Indian heritage and the son of missionaries, he spent the first six years of life in Panama, where his folks opened schools and hospitals and churches. Eventually the family of five came back to the United States, settling in Santa Fe, where Iglesias played halfback for the public high school's excuse for a football team.
After doing his time at Wheaton College in Illinois and finishing law school at the University of New Mexico, he joined the Navy's Judge Advocate General Corps in 1984. Based in the District from 1984 to 1988, Iglesias had the unenviable task of being a defense attorney in a setting where acquittals are rare.
But it was here that two events changed Iglesias's life for good.
The first was an assignment to Guantanamo Bay with fellow JAG lawyer Deborah Sorkin, the sister of Aaron Sorkin. The case, which involved defending Marines charged with the attempted murder of a fellow soldier during a hazing incident, would form the basis for "A Few Good Men," the Sorkin play that became a movie. From then on Iglesias gladly told everyone that he was the inspiration behind the truth-demanding, fist-pumping JAG attorney played by Cruise.
The second event was merely a haircut in the Old Town section of Alexandria. Iglesias met Cyndy, who would cut his hair and win his heart. They married in 1988 and moved to New Mexico, and he worked his way up through the various layers of government. Cyndy seemed the ideal candidate's wife -- perky, pretty, a woman who can say "neat" without eliciting a grimace -- when Iglesias ran for New Mexico attorney general in 1998. Now she seems even more apt for her new role as the spouse of a public martyr.
"Dave is very intense, very focused," says Iglesias's Wheaton classmate Kevin McCarthy, pastor of a nondenominational church in Michigan. "Cyndy is lighthearted and jovial and fiercely loyal -- someone who's always cheered him on."
In many ways the couple have switched places in their new life. As Iglesias searches for an inner calm after his life as a hard-driving prosecutor, Cyndy has become a combination cheerleader/wife/mother/appointments secretary/news watcher/public relations specialist. She's clipped and downloaded every article she can find on the scandal, collecting them in a binder that will become the family's new coffee-table book.
On the morning of May 3, while Iglesias paced in the back yard fielding a job offer, it was Cyndy, her arms tightly folded, who watched the testimony of former deputy attorney general James Comey on the couple's computer in the bedroom. With her youngest daughter, Sophia, 10, waiting to go to school, Cyndy nodded in approval as Comey called her husband "a very strong U.S. attorney," then offered her own color commentary to the often sensory-numbing proceedings.
"That is so refreshing when you're dealing with testimony like that," she says. "I am so glad he's testifying."
"Mom," Sophia says, "Can we go now?"At Home With the Kids
The Iglesias household is at once a chaotic center of tween and teen activity -- continuous drop-offs and pickups to and from ballet and voice lessons -- and a place of great sanctuary from the world. Various versions of the Bible are scattered throughout the house. Each morning Iglesias will sit in a rattan chair off the kitchen from which you can see the mountains and read a chapter from Psalms and Proverbs. Members of the 12,000-member nondenominational Calvary Chapel, the Iglesias family goes to church on Saturday evenings -- David and Cyndy attend the main service, while the kids splinter off to different youth-oriented groups.
He has a lot of time on his hands. At home he sleeps in when he can. He e-mails, talks to former colleagues from the JAG Corps and White House Fellows program. Still a captain in the Navy Reserves, he tries not to think about being deployed to a JAG unit in Iraq or Afghanistan. During the week, he swims or lifts weights at Kirtland Air Force Base. He fields calls from headhunters and juggles job interviews.
With three daughters soon to be in college, he'd planned to leave public life and earn some real money, he says, and the firing only sped up the process.
"What's been a shocker to me is people asking me if I'm planning to run for office, and the only thought that comes to me is, 'What planet are they living on?' " he says. "The local Republican Party would just as soon tar and feather me at this point. The rank and file probably think I'm the greatest traitor since Benedict Arnold. They expected me to remain quiet and not say anything, which would have been the wrong thing to do."
During a couple of days spent around Iglesias, the question of a book contract seems to jab its way into conversations. He's been approached by multiple literary agencies and book editors, and he says he'd base any writing on Colin Powell's "My American Journey."
"If you were me would you write a book?" he asks a reporter while driving one afternoon with his 16-year-old, Claudia, in the back seat.
Then: "If I did it," he says, "would I do it myself or have somebody else do it? Or not do it at all?" And: "I'm really surprised we haven't been contacted by magazines like Vanity Fair or the Atlantic for a larger story. I like them."
One day recently, sitting in his back yard, he leans back in his patio chair and says, "It's been a greatly simplified life. I wouldn't want to do this for another year, but this may be the last chance in my life to do this before I retire."
For the moment he has time and fame and notoriety, a mug from Tim Russert, a travel clock courtesy of Bill Maher. But what one does in the aftermath of that attention is something that can scare the bejesus out of the best of us. This is something he must contemplate as he weaves his way through the foothills above Albuquerque, a lone figure running through the trails, trying not to stumble.