Retiring Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., created an appearance of impropriety when he called a federal prosecutor in New Mexico to ask about the timing of corruption indictments, the Senate ethics committee said Thursday.
The committee criticized Domenici in a letter to the senator, but it recommended no punishment.
The prosecutor, David Iglesias, later was fired and said he felt pressured by Domenici. He was among eight U.S. attorneys who were dismissed by the Bush administration, sparking Democratic accusations that they were fired for political reasons.
The firings were one of the controversies surrounding former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales when he resigned from his Cabinet post.
Iglesias had said that Domenici — his one-time patron for the job of U.S. attorney — called him at home in October 2006 to ask whether he planned to file corruption charges before the elections that November, which could have helped Republicans. When told it was unlikely, according to Iglesias' account, Domenici responded, "I am very sorry to hear that," and then the line went dead.
The incident marred the career of the six-term senator, who has been influential on energy and budget issues. The 75-year-old senator announced last year he was retiring at the end of his term because of a degenerative brain disease.
"The committee finds no substantial evidence to determine that you attempted to improperly influence an ongoing investigation," the committee letter said.
‘You should have known’
"The committee does find that you should have known that a federal prosecutor receiving such a telephone call, coupled with an approaching election which may have turned on or been influenced by the prosecutor's actions ... created an appearance of impropriety that reflected unfavorably on the Senate."
Domenici said in a statement, "I am gratified the Senate ethics committee has concluded its inquiry favorably without a formal adjudicatory review, confirming what I have always maintained: I did not attempt to improperly influence an ongoing investigation when I telephoned the former United States Attorney for the District of New Mexico.
"Nevertheless, as I said publicly last March when this complaint was originally filed, I regret the distraction this controversy has caused my colleagues, my staff, my family and, most importantly, my constituents. Now that this matter has concluded favorably, I am anxious to focus all of my time and attention on the business of the people of New Mexico."
Iglesias said he interpreted the committee letter as publicly admonishing Domenici for his "improper activity."
"I trust this will serve as a warning to other members of Congress that contacting United States attorneys in this manner is impermissible and unacceptable behavior.
"This official reprimand to a senior senator who knew better has revived my confidence in the rule of law and the sanctity of a prosecutor's independence."
Inquiry limited to single phone call
The committee letter said it confined its inquiry to Domenici's October 2006 telephone call.
"It was never a purpose of the committee ... to inquire more broadly into actions that may have been taken by others with regard to other United States Attorneys in the fall of 2006," the letter said.
The committee also said it took into consideration Domenici's public statement in March 2007, when he said, in part, "In retrospect, I regret making the call and I apologize."