October 2006 was a rough month for U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson
The situation was becoming desperate in her re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid, at the time the state’s attorney general. Following Madrid’s gains in the polls throughout September, on Oct. 4 the first of three polls by national companies found that Madrid had taken the lead in the race. The third came out on Oct. 17.
That’s about the same time former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias says a member of Congress he hasn’t named, but most believe to be Wilson, called him. A week and a half later, most likely only days after an Albuquerque Journal poll became the fourth to give Madrid the lead, Iglesias claims a second member of Congress called. Most believe that was Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
The intent of both callers, Iglesias claims, was to pressure him to issue indictments in a massive public corruption investigation involving the construction of government buildings in Bernalillo County in time to sway voters in the November election.
His allegations about the phone calls have led to the subpoenas of Iglesias and three of the other seven U.S. attorneys the Bush Administration fired a month after the November election. The Justice Department says seven of the eight, including Iglesias, were fired over performance issues; Iglesias disputes that, but says he’s afraid of retaliation and won’t name the members of Congress except under oath.
In an exclusive interview, Madrid said she wouldn’t be surprised if Iglesias is telling the truth, because she believes Domenici and Wilson may have had a hand in another massive public corruption scandal prosecuted by his office.
She said Iglesias, a Republican, kept her office from having any involvement in prosecution of the state treasurer scandal. She believes that was “probably” done at the urging of Republican operatives and designed to give Wilson fuel to attack Madrid for doing nothing about the scandal.
It worked, Madrid pointed out: Wilson won by 861 votes out of more than 211,000.
Madrid said the allegations call into question the independence of decisions made by Iglesias in the Vigil case and courthouse investigation, in which indictments could come later this month.
“Heather Wilson and Domenici acted unethically if they placed those calls,” Madrid said. “I think these questions should be answered.”
Spokesmen for Domenici and Wilson did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article, and both have repeatedly refused to comment on Iglesias’ allegations. Iglesias could not be reached for comment, but told National Public Radio on Thursday that the October phone calls were the first he ever received from members of Congress attempting to influence an investigation.
Stonewalled on treasurer investigation
Madrid said her office was involved in 2005 in the early stages of the investigation of the treasurer scandal, along with the state’s Taxation and Revenue Department, but the FBI stepped in, took control of the investigation and ordered her to stay away.
Madrid contends that was likely done at the urging of Republicans, who may have been preparing to fight what, at the time, was only a potential Madrid campaign against Wilson. The congresswoman repeatedly attacked Madrid during the campaign for doing nothing about the corruption in the treasurer’s office.
“We were deliberately kept out by the Justice Department, the U.S. attorney and the FBI,” Madrid said, adding that she believes it is likely that Iglesias, Domenici, Wilson and Bush political adviser Karl Rove “had these prosecutions so intertwined with this campaign.”
In the end, former Treasurer Michael Montoya and three others, all Democrats, pleaded guilty in exchange for their testimony against former Treasurer Robert Vigil, whose first trial ended in a hung jury in May. On the second try in September, Vigil was convicted on one felony count of attempted bribery but acquitted on 23 other counts.
Vigil was sentenced to 37 months in prison, but is appealing the conviction.
Madrid said Iglesias’ office handled the case “incompetently” from the start. She said Vigil was “the least culpable” of all the defendants, and yet the others received plea bargains in an attempt to take him down. She said she was distressed that Iglesias was letting the others off “too easily,” and believes there may have been political pressure to go after Vigil because he was a Democrat who was still in office when the scandal broke.
In response, Madrid indicted in June the four who testified against Vigil in the first federal trial, basing the state charges on their testimony against Vigil. When those defendants cried foul, saying they had immunity, it became clear that federal prosecutors had promised federal immunity, but never sought or received a pledge of state immunity from Madrid.
Iglesias accused Madrid of indicting for political reasons and interfering with his case, which Madrid disputes. The state cases are pending.
Madrid said she believes federal prosecutors never sought a pledge of immunity from her in all likelihood because doing so would have meant involving her office in the case, which would have hampered Wilson’s ability to attack her for doing nothing.
In addition, she said the prosecution of Vigil may be evidence that Iglesias was being pressured. Prosecutors are trained to take cases before juries only when they have the evidence to make strong arguments, but, she said, in the case of Vigil, “they went to court with apparently weak evidence.”
The stakes were high
As for her assertion that Rove may have been involved, Madrid pointed out that hers was one of the most hotly contested races in the nation, and Rove was responsible for ensuring that Republicans kept control of the House. He visited the state twice during the 2006 election season, and one of those times flew to New Mexico on Air Force one with Wilson and President Bush for a Wilson fundraiser.
Bringing the situation back to the larger controversy surrounding the eight fired U.S. attorneys, Madrid also pointed out that the Justice Department has admitted that former Arkansas U.S. Attorney H.E. “Bud” Cummins was sent packing in December to make room for former Rove political adviser Tim Griffin.
Political pressure has forced the Bush Administration to back off Griffin’s appointment.
Madrid says this all adds up to the scenario she believes is “probably” true: Domenici, Wilson and Rove attempted to influence Iglesias’ prosecution in the Vigil and courthouse cases, but his inaction on the courthouse indictments, coupled with his incompetence in the Vigil case, angered them and cost him his job.
State government was plagued by Democratic scandals in 2006, but Republicans failed to capitalize on it with election victories. A more definite conviction of Vigil or indictments in the courthouse scandal, which could include former Senate President Manny Aragon, might have had an effect.
For the GOP, either would have been welcome news. In addition to Wilson’s slip in the polls, the news was bad for Republicans across the nation as the war in Iraq, the page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley and other issues took a toll.
So the stakes were high. They still are: The members of Congress who allegedly pressured Iglesias could face ethics charges. Iglesias will likely be asked under oath to name them when he testifies before a House subcommittee on Tuesday, and he has said he will do so if required.
Iglesias admits he should have notified superiors when the members of Congress called, as department procedure requires. He calls not doing so a mistake. Madrid said it’s further evidence that “he was playing ball with them” until he was fired.
Will it influence the 2008 election?
Noting that she won last year by only a few hundred votes, some have speculated that the scandal might weaken Wilson to the point that she would lose a re-election bid in 2008. In addition, Wilson is considered to be Domenici’s hand-picked successor when he steps down, but some speculate the scandal could end her hopes of becoming a senator.
Madrid, who has said she might run for Domenici’s seat in 2008 or governor in 2010, said she isn’t so sure about that.
“I don’t know if it’s enough to take her out of office,” Madrid said. “All I can tell you is it’s unethical, and they claim to be so ethical.”
Madrid said she is still undecided on her future plans. She’s recovering from a campaign that was one of the bloodiest the state has ever seen.
“I’m not ready,” she said.
Labels: U.S. attorney, Washington