Back at the beginning of the year the Justice Department announced that it was replacing seven U.S. Attorneys in an unprecedented move. The Attorney ‘purge’ was able to take place due to a provision allowing the Justice Department to unilaterally replace U.S. Attorneys for any reason that was snuck into the PATRIOT Act reauthorization by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA). McClatchy Newspapers reports today that one of those Attorneys, David Iglesias, U.S. Attorney from New Mexico, was pressured by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) to bring down indictments on local Democratic officials prior to the 2006 midterm election. Iglesias refused and has since been purged by the Justice Department. If Wilson and Domenici did attempt to pressure a sitting U.S. Attorney for the political benefit of the oft-endangered Wilson it would be a serious ethical violation.
Wilson’s history with Domenici is integral to this story. Wilson was one of the top Democratic targets in the 2006 election and faced her toughest competition in years from New Mexico Attorney General Patsy Madrid. She barely eked out a victory after a late gaffe by Madrid during a debate. Wilson’s continuing victories are essential to the aging Domenici as he views the Albuquerque Republican as his heir. Domenici is an institution in New Mexico. He has served since the 1970s and represents a more moderate strain of Republicanism than those elected in the 1980s or 90s. Wilson was brought up through the system by Domenici and clearly the heir apparent to his Senate seat, much to the chagrin of the more conservative Southern New Mexico Republican Congressman Stevan Pearce. This explains why Domenici, the second of the two to pressure Iglesias, was “more persistent than Wilson … When Iglesias said an indictment wouldn't be handed down until at least December, the line went dead.” Meanwhile the White House is choosing between four potential replacements for Iglesias, all of whom were hand picked by Domenici. Domenici is up for reelection in 2008.
The Democrats in the House issued their first subpoenas to the purged U.S. Attorneys since taking control of the investigative powers of the committees. This case goes well beyond the potentially serious unethical actions of the two New Mexico Republicans when looking at the other Attorneys who have been purged.
Purged U.S. Attorney Carol Lam has been the lead prosecutor in the Randy “Duke” Cunningham case that has led to the indictments of Cunningham (also convicted and sentenced to over 8 years in prison), Brent Wilkes, Mitchell Wade, and K. Dusty Foggo. Lam was purged immediately after she indicted Wilkes, a top government contractor with ties to many California Republicans including Appropriations Ranking Member Jerry Lewis and Presidential candidate Duncan Hunter, and Foggo, the former number three at the CIA. TPM Muckraker has been following this case diligently and as they point out, the Iglesias revelations make the removal of Lam incredibly suspect. Perhaps she was getting too deep; this San Diego Union-Tribune article from today notes that the case is incredibly sensitive as it could potentially reveal the identities of CIA operatives because the indictment alleges that Foggo gave the confidential information to the contractor Wilkes. It should be noted that Wilkes was a 2004 Bush “Ranger” (he raised more than $200,000).
Another purged Attorney, Bud Cummins, U.S. Attorney from Arkansas, stated that he was pushed out to make way for a protégé of White House strategist de jour Karl Rove. The Rove protégé, Tim Griffin, was formerly an opposition research specialist at the Republican National Committee, a purely political position. Griffin has since withdrawn his name from consideration for a full time position blaming the politicization of the process by Arkansas’ two Democratic Senators Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln. He is currently the interim U.S. Attorney from Arkansas.
Playing with justice for political reasons is a serious violation of the public’s trust. That two Members of Congress may have done this to further their careers or legacies is abominable. The Ethics Committees in both Houses of Congress have just been handed a chance to prove if they work or not. If Members wish to insist that they do not need an Independent Oversight Board to investigate wrong doing they must begin with the cases of Wilson and Domenici to prove that they can and will police their own. On the grander scale, the Justice Department has serious questions it must answer in what may be an attempt to stifle or distort justice for purely political reasons.