Domenici Rebuked for Call to U.S. Attorney Before Election
Friday, April 25, 2008
Sen. Pete V. Domenici was admonished yesterday for his "appearance of impropriety" in connection with the firing of a U.S. attorney, one of nine prosecutors who were dismissed in 2006, leading to investigations of the Justice Department and the resignation of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales last September.
The Senate ethics committee found that Domenici (N.M.) -- a six-term Republican senator who plans to retire at the end of the year for health reasons -- inappropriately called his local federal prosecutor to ask about an investigation of New Mexico Democrats on the eve of the 2006 midterm elections.
"You should have known that a federal prosecutor receiving such a telephone call, coupled with an approaching election which may have turned on or been influenced by the prosecutor's actions in the corruption matter, created an appearance of impropriety that reflected unfavorably on the Senate," the committee wrote in a three-page letter signed by the three Democrats and three Republicans on the panel.
The "public letter of qualified admonition" is a mild form of punishment under Senate rules, ending a 13-month investigation in which the panel interviewed Domenici, his staff and David C. Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney for New Mexico.
Six weeks after Domenici's phone call to Iglesias, the prosecutor was one of seven U.S. attorneys fired on one day, Dec. 7, 2006.
Domenici said in a statement yesterday: "I did not attempt to improperly influence an ongoing investigation when I telephoned [Iglesias]. Nevertheless, as I said publicly last March when this complaint was originally filed, I regret the distraction this controversy has caused my colleagues, my staff, my family and, most importantly, my constituents."
Democrats on the House and Senate Judiciary committees, which investigated the firings last year, have questioned whether officials in the White House's political office played a role in the firing of Iglesias, who New Mexico Republicans complained was not aggressively prosecuting Democrats.
More than a dozen witnesses, including Gonzales and his inner circle of aides, testified publicly and privately before the Judiciary committees but never fully explained how Iglesias ended up on the firing list after receiving high grades from senior Justice Department officials in previous years.
The committee -- which limited its probe to Iglesias -- found "no substantial evidence" that Domenici tried to improperly influence the investigation of a federal courthouse construction project.
That investigation was a central campaign theme of Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), a Domenici acolyte who is running for his Senate seat. She accused her 2006 opponent, a state attorney general, of being lax on corruption investigations.
Wilson called Iglesias in October 2006 and, according to the prosecutor's testimony, asked him about "sealed indictments" of Albuquerque Democrats. She has denied any wrongdoing, and a House ethics committee investigation of her actions is ongoing.
On Election Day 2006 -- less than two weeks after Domenici's call -- Iglesias's name appeared on a firing list for the first time.
The former prosecutor claimed vindication yesterday. "I trust this will serve as a warning to other members of Congress that contacting United States attorneys in this manner is impermissible and unacceptable behavior," he said.
The incident remains under investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general, who is reviewing political interference in the department.
New Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey has limited the number of Justice officials who would be eligible to receive phone calls from the White House and political figures.
Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.