WASHINGTON - Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico pressured the U.S. attorney in their state to speed up indictments in a federal corruption investigation that involved at least one former Democratic state senator, according to two people familiar with the contacts.
The alleged involvement of the two Republican lawmakers raises questions about possible violations of House of Representatives and Senate ethics rules and could taint the criminal investigation into the award of an $82 million courthouse contract.
U.S. Attorney David Iglesias speaks at his last press conference at the U.S. Attorney offices in Albuquerque, N.M., Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007. Iglesias said Wednesday he doesn't mind 'being a political pinata,' but he does resent any inference that his office wasn't doing its job. Iglesias - one of seven U.S. attorneys nationwide abruptly asked by the Bush administration on Dec. 7 to resign - defended his record on his last day in office. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf)
The two people with knowledge of the incident said Domenici and Wilson intervened in mid-October, when Wilson was in a competitive re-election campaign that she won by 875 votes out of nearly 211,000 cast.
David Iglesias, who stepped down as U.S. attorney in New Mexico on Wednesday, told McClatchy Newspapers that he believed the Bush administration fired him Dec. 7 because he resisted the pressure to rush an indictment.
According to the two individuals, Domenici and Wilson called to press Iglesias for details of the case.
Wilson was curt after Iglesias was "non-responsive" to her questions about whether an indictment would be unsealed, said the two individuals, who asked not to be identified because they feared possible political repercussions. Rumors had spread throughout the New Mexico legal community that an indictment of at least one Democrat was sealed.
Domenici, who wasn't up for re-election, called about a week and a half later and was more persistent than Wilson, the people said. When Iglesias said an indictment wouldn't be handed down until at least December, the line went dead.
So far no one has been charged.
Press aides for Domenici and Wilson wouldn't comment. Justice Department officials have denied hearing of any such interference and said they didn't fire Iglesias over it.
Iglesias said in an earlier interview that he regretted not reporting the contact to his superiors, and he said he didn't have evidence that it led to his firing.
Some Democrats are questioning whether the two lawmakers could be accused of ethics violations for inappropriate contact with an executive branch official.
Stanley Brand, a former federal prosecutor and former Democratic counsel to the House, said such interference could be a violation.
"There's a general ethical principle that members should not unduly interfere in adjudicative proceedings in front of courts or agencies," he said. "This happens to be a criminal prosecution. There would seem to be a special concern about reaching out to a U.S. attorney and asking about a pending case.
"The House and Senate have not taken much notice of these things," he said. "But they don't usually rise to this level."
The allegations also could give defense attorneys in the corruption case in New Mexico legal ammunition to attack an indictment, Brand said.
"Even if he (Iglesias) didn't submit himself to the pressure, if I'm a defense attorney, I'm going to scream bloody murder and say it looks like he did," he said.
The allegations have fueled a weeks-long controversy over whether the Bush administration forced out eight Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys because of partisan politics.
Justice Department officials have said that most of the firings were for "performance-related" issues and denied partisan political motives.
On Thursday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., issued subpoenas to require Iglesias and three other ousted U.S. attorneys to testify before Congress.
The judiciary subcommittee on administrative law authorized the subpoenas by a 7-0 vote. The five Republican members of the subcommittee didn't show up for the vote.
The subpoenas require Iglesias, and former U.S. attorneys Carol Lam of San Diego, H.E. "Bud" Cummins of Little Rock, Ark., and John McKay of Seattle to appear before the subcommittee next week.
"The former U.S. attorneys are alleging very serious charges against the administration and we need to hear from them," Conyers said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is sending letters to the same four asking them to testify voluntarily on Tuesday.
In the last several weeks, other U.S. attorneys have spoken out against the administration to dispute that they were fired because of how they handled their jobs.
The administration has said that politics played a part only in the firing of Cummins. Officials said he was removed to make way for Tim Griffin, a former aide to White House political operative Karl Rove.
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau