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Senator admits role in criminal investigation

New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici acknowledged Sunday that he called a federal prosecutor to ask about a criminal investigation, but insisted he never pressured nor threatened his state’s U.S. attorney.
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Sen. Pete Domenici, seen in January, acknowledged talking to his state's federal prosecutor, who was recently fired.Alex Wong / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici acknowledged Sunday that he called a federal prosecutor to ask about a criminal investigation, but insisted he never pressured nor threatened his state’s U.S. attorney.

The prosecutor, David Iglesias, was fired by the Justice Department in December. Iglesias says he believes he was dismissed for resisting pressure from two members of Congress before last year’s election to rush indictments in a Democratic kickback investigation.

Ethics experts said Domenici’s conduct may have violated Senate rules, which generally bar communications between members of Congress and federal prosecutors about ongoing criminal investigations.

Iglesias, a Republican, has said he would not name the lawmakers unless asked under oath.

A House Judiciary subcommittee subpoenaed the prosecutor last week to appear Tuesday and testify under oath. He also was scheduled to appear before a Senate committee the same day. Domenici refused last week to say if he had contacted Iglesias, insisting in a brief interview with the Associated Press, “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”

Expresses regrets
But in his statement Sunday, the Republican senator said he called Iglesias last year and asked “if he could tell me what was going on in that investigation and give me an idea of what time frame we were looking at.

“It was a very brief conversation, which concluded when I was told that the courthouse investigation would be continuing for a lengthy period,” Domenici said in the statement.

“In retrospect, I regret making that call and I apologize,” Domenici said. “However, at no time in that conversation or any other conversation with Mr. Iglesias did I ever tell him what course of action I thought he should take on any legal matter. I have never pressured him nor threatened him in any way.”

Communication by a member of Congress with a federal prosecutor about an ongoing criminal investigation may constitute an ethics violation.

Experts weigh in
Kenneth Gross, a Washington lawyer who specializes in congressional ethics rules, said Domenici’s phone call to Iglesias could have violated Senate ethics rules if there was an element of pressure or coercion to his inquiry.

“It doesn’t sound very good to me,” Gross said. “But requests for the status of cases are generally considered permissible.”

Punishment for such violations range from a warning and reprimand to expulsion from office.

Abbe D. Lowell, a criminal defense lawyer who served as special assistant to the attorney general during the Carter Administration, said it was hard to determine if there was a violation without knowing what Domenici knew about the investigation when he made the call and what exactly he said.

But Lowell added, “The safest course of a member of Congress is not to make inquiries of prosecutors about pending matters so their motives and actions cannot be misunderstood.”

Prosecutor: ‘I frankly felt violated’
Iglesias said last week that he was shocked to receive two separate phone calls in mid-October from lawmakers who asked about details of the investigation and seemed eager to see an indictment before the 2006 election.

“I frankly felt violated,” Iglesias said. “They were very troubling phone calls.”

When Iglesias testifies Tuesday before the House panel, he is expected to say that Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., contacted him to discuss moving forward on indictments in a high-profile corruption case involving a Democrat before the November congressional elections, according to a Democratic aide who is familiar with Iglesias’ planned testimony.

The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly before the hearings.

Corruption in the New Mexico Democratic Party was a major issue in Wilson’s re-election campaign and further indictments might have helped her. Wilson last week refused to say if she had contacted Iglesias, referring questions about “that personnel matter” to the Justice Department.

Firings arouse Democratic ire
Iglesias is one of eight U.S. attorneys who were fired in December, some without cause, according to the department. Federal prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired for any reason, or none at all.

Congressional Democrats say the firings indicate the Bush administration is using a new part of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act to reward political allies with coveted jobs as U.S. attorneys without having to submit them to Senate confirmation.

This provision, enacted a year ago with the law’s reauthorization, removes a time limit by which the Senate must confirm appointees to such jobs. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, however, has said he intends to submit the name of every nominee to vacant U.S. attorney job to the Senate for confirmation.

The House Judiciary subcommittee that subpoenaed Iglesias also issued subpoenas for three other dismissed U.S. attorneys — Carol Lam of California, H.E. “Bud” Cummins of Arkansas and John McKay of Seattle.

The Senate also has asked those four and two others, Daniel Bogden of Nevada and Paul Charlton of Arizona to appear voluntarily at a hearing Tuesday.