New Mexico's outgoing U.S. attorney believes he was forced out of his job for political reasons after refusing pressure from two congressmen to push an indictment that might have helped Republicans in the 2006 election, according to published reports.
David Iglesias made the claim on his last day on the job in a report published Wednesday in McClatchy Newspapers and read on the Senate floor. He followed with a news conference in Albuquerque at which he strongly defended his record in office.
Iglesias said two members of Congress contacted him in the weeks prior to the 2006 election to ask about an ongoing investigation of a kickback scheme, appearing eager to see an indictment just before the elections.
Corruption charges against two previous state New Mexico treasurers — both Democrats — were prominent issues during the election, and further charges could have helped the Republicans.
Iglesias, a Republican, refused to name the members of Congress in the report because he feared retaliation, and declined comment when asked about the statement by The Associated Press.
"I've got nothing further to say about that," he said.
Surprising exit to job
Iglesias' claim was a bombshell that caught many in New Mexico and Washington by surprise.
Three members of the state's congressional delegation denied contacting Iglesias about the indictment — Democrats, Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Tom Udall, and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce.
Republicans, Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, did not return repeated phone calls from The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he spoke to Iglesias about the incident. Schumer's spokesman Eric Schultz said Iglesias did not name the two lawmakers whom he claims contacted him.
"These are extremely serious and very troubling allegations coming from a man of great integrity," Schumer said. "We will continue to pursue this until we get to the bottom of what happened and pass legislation to prevent it from ever happening again."
Iglesias is among eight federal prosecutors asked in recent weeks to resign. Critics have suggested that the removals were politically motivated and illustrate what they say is a flaw in the antiterror Patriot Act.
Senate Democrats want to eliminate a provision in the Patriot Act that gave the attorney general new power to replace fired U.S. attorneys indefinitely, avoiding the Senate confirmation process and allowing the president to appoint GOP allies.
Democrats seized on Iglesias' claim, saying they are moving to subpoena some of the U.S. attorneys to tell their stories publicly.
A House subcommittee will vote Thursday on subpoenas for Iglesias and three other former prosecutors. The Senate Judiciary Committee this week will send letters to those ousted asking for their voluntary testimony. Iglesias and others have said they would testify if they received a congressional subpoena.
At his news conference in Albuquerque, Iglesias did not mention his claim about the members of Congress.
'Like a thief in the night'
He said the Bush administration's call for his resignation came without warning and was rooted in politics — not performance.
"This episode came like a thief in the night," he said of the Dec. 7 request for him to step down. He added, "Obviously, I tripped some wire."
Iglesias displayed charts with statistics showing that the number of defendants charged during his tenure rose 13 percent and immigration cases increased 78 percent. At the same time, the caseload of his assistant U.S. attorneys went up 24 percent, while the number of full-time employees in the office went up just 7 percent.
"I'm proud of my office," he said. "They've done righteous work."
He also insisted that he received strong "atta-boy" performance reviews in 2003 and 2006 and was certain that the call for his ouster was not performance related nor the result of any misconduct.
"What does that leave? Politics," he said.
The suggestion that Iglesias was asked to resign because he failed to bring an indictment is "flatly false," said Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman. "This administration has never removed a United States attorney in an effort to retaliate against them or inappropriately interfere with a public integrity investigation."
Roehrkasse also said that the Justice Department was unaware of any conversations between Iglesias and New Mexico's congressional delegation.
Performance cited as reason for termination
Iglesias was confirmed in 2001 to a four-year term "and was allowed to extend his service for an additional year and a half," Roehrkasse said.
"During his 5 1/2 years of service, we had a lengthy record from which to evaluate his performance as a manager and we made our decision not to further extend his service based on performance-related concerns," Roehrkasse said.
An interim U.S. attorney for New Mexico is expected to be appointed soon.
Iglesias said he still feels "hugely disappointed" by his ouster but said he was not disgruntled.
"If anything, if such a word exists, I'm gruntled. I had a great five-and-a-half years."
Still, he said, he represents three big constituencies for the Republican Party — evangelical Christians, Hispanics and veterans — and said he couldn't understand why the administration would ask someone who's doing a good job and who represents those constituencies to step down.
Iglesias said he's proudest of prosecuting political corruption, and that his biggest regret is leaving unfinished an investigation into construction contracts for an Albuquerque courthouse. He said he expects an announcement in that case in the next month.
He still considers himself a loyal member of the Republican Party. No organization is perfect, he said, "but what I've seen in the last two months is imperfection practiced at a ... grandiose level."