Uproar over prosecutors discomforts Domenici

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The seat of federal justice in Albuquerque is named for Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a former mayor and native son who showered New Mexico with federal money during his decades in Washington and was rewarded by having his name adorn the U.S. courthouse.

"He does extraordinary things for this state," said Kate Nelson, managing editor of The Albuquerque Tribune and a political commentator, who dubbed Domenici, a Republican, "St. Pete" in recognition of the federal benefits he shipped west, leavened with a bit of sass for the outsized reverence in which he is held at home.

But a brief telephone call last year from Domenici to a federal prosecutor, David C. Iglesias, has become a central element of a congressional inquiry into the dismissal of Iglesias and seven other U.S. attorneys.

Iglesias told Congress that he felt pressured by the call from Domenici, once his political mentor, who telephoned days before the November elections to inquire about the status of indictments in a politically charged case.

Committees in the House and Senate are exploring whether Iglesias and other federal prosecutors were ousted for strictly partisan reasons and whether Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and senior Justice Department officials initially misled Congress in explaining the personnel moves.

A complaint that Domenici broke Senate rules by interfering in a criminal matter has prompted an ethics committee inquiry. But it is unclear how that will play out because Domenici is not talking, and neither is the committee.

The scrutiny has marred the almost spotless reputation of Domenici, 74, the second-longest-serving Republican in the Senate - he was first elected in 1972 - as he prepares to seek a seventh term.

"I think it has certainly been a distraction and a cause for stress," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who replaced Domenici as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Steve Bell, Domenici's chief of staff and an aide throughout most of his Senate career, said: "I think he is really, really embarrassed, and it is so different from any reaction he has ever experienced before in his political life. The truth is he is absolutely stunned that this has been made into a huge political item."

Bell, Nelson and others in both parties believe the fallout from the dismissals of the prosecutors is not enough to derail the re-election of Domenici, an immensely popular figure in New Mexico.

Domenici, who issued a statement apologizing for the call, has retained a lawyer. His allies say that while the call turned out to be ill-advised, it is being exploited by Democrats and was simply an effort by Domenici to find out what was happening with widely anticipated indictments.

Charges were eventually returned at the end of March against leading Democratic figures in a case related to accusations of corruption surrounding the construction of a county courthouse.

"He didn't threaten him; he didn't instruct him to do anything," said Bob Stevenson, a Republican consultant who is a former top aide to Domenici. "This is a state where Pete Domenici has always been concerned about the responsiveness of government both at the federal and state level."

Democrats and some watchdog groups say the call appeared intended to spur Iglesias to file indictments in the hope of helping Rep. Heather A. Wilson, a Republican congresswoman from the state. The suggestion is that a criminal case against prominent Democrats might have benefited Wilson, who ultimately won a tough re-election fight and who had called Iglesias a week or so earlier.

"If nothing else, it highlights his willingness to abuse his power," Matt Farrauto, executive director of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said of Domenici. "That is all fine and good in some people's eyes if he is bringing home the bacon, but when he is using his influence to save the failing campaign of Heather Wilson, that is another issue."

Farrauto and others say there are signs that the furor over the federal prosecutors has cut into Domenici's standing in the state.

But the Democrats do not have a candidate with the stature to mount a serious threat.

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