No Comment — January 12, 2009, 9:09 am

New Mexico Delusions

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page lectures us that the U.S. attorney’s scandal and the allegations about politicization of the Justice Department are all a bunch of “hoohah.” Their proof? A new, court-appointed career federal prosecutor in New Mexico is now in the middle of a “pay to play” investigation, examining allegations that Governor Bill Richardson’s administration gave an important state contract to a California-based investment bank that made contributions to some Richardson-connected PACs.

Perhaps you don’t see how the facts reported support the proposition that the claims of politics in Justice Department prosecutions are false? Neither do I. Neither does anyone I know who read and puzzled over this editorial. The reasoning is apparently something like this: there is corruption in New Mexico state government. President Bush was right to fire David Iglesias, a Republican, for failing to go after it. But this demonstrates a failure to appreciate even the most basic facts surrounding the scandal. Contrary to the suggestion in the Journal piece, the principal charges concerning Iglesias do not have to do with “voter fraud” accusations. Rather, they relate to a corruption investigation that Iglesias was pursuing, and close to closing, in the fall of 2006, just before the midterm elections. The investigation focused on a kickback scheme involving a man who was then one of New Mexico’s most powerful Democrats, state Senate President pro tem Manny Aragon. As Iglesias related in his Congressional testimony, in the weeks before the election, first Representative Heather Wilson and then Senator Pete Domenici called him asking when the charges would be filed against Aragon; Domenici made clear that he wanted the indictment out “before November.” Heather Wilson was then locked in an electoral struggle to hold on to her House seat against former New Mexico attorney general Patricia Madrid. Wilson was also widely expected to be tapped by Domenici as his successor when he retired from the Senate, so the race mattered deeply to the state’s most senior Republican.

Iglesias reported that he was extremely troubled by the calls. They were clearly improper and led to ethics investigations by Congress against both Domenici and Wilson. Domenici received a “letter of qualified admonition” and decided to retire from Congress. Wilson was defeated in her effort to take Domenici’s seat. In the 2008 elections, New Mexico returned no Republicans to Congress.

Iglesias adhered to the guidance of the U.S. Attorney’s manual, which advised that indictments should not be brought during an election cycle if they could be seen as an attempt to influence an election. He also went forth with the Aragon investigation, and was preparing to announce his indictment when he was dismissed in the famous December 7, 2006, sacking of U.S. attorneys. Was Iglesias fired because he failed to abuse his powers as U.S. attorney to benefit Wilson and Domenici at the polls? That’s what the facts suggest, though the refusal of Karl Rove and several other White House figures to cooperate left the Justice Department unable, so far, to make final judgments or to bring any charges.

So Iglesias did conduct one of the most important and high-profile investigations of corruption in recent New Mexico history, and his targets were mostly Democrats. And there’s nothing wrong or even controversial about that. The controversy focused on the bid to use this prosecution as partisan electoral fodder, a move which might have helped the careers of Pete Domenici and Heather Wilson, but would have seriously damaged the reputation of the Department of Justice. The facts concerning the current investigation arose after Iglesias left, and there’s no reason to believe that Iglesias wouldn’t have pursued them just as aggressively as his court-appointed successor has. In fact, I checked in with David Iglesias and asked him what he thought of the Journal editorial and what the pending investigation told him. Here’s what he had to say:

The Wall Street Journal’s nonsensical editorial tries to argue about matters no longer in controversy. The official DOJ investigation into the U.S. Attorney firings established conclusively that the firings were “fundamentally flawed.” Every reason given for my ouster was reviewed and rejected by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, Glenn Fine, who characterized the proferred reasons as “disingenous after the fact rationalizations.” If this editorial represents the logical reasoning ability of the board, I have profound doubt as to their ability to understand the utter sanctity of a prosecutor’s independence and integrity.

Reading the Journal’s editorial, you get the distinct feeling that its author doesn’t read the news reports in his own paper, or any newspaper, for that matter. Did the author miss the extended reports on the Department of Justice’s own internal probe–which produced a 400-page report validating Iglesias’s account, noting only that it could not bring the matter to closure only because key figures in the White House refused to cooperate with the probe? The internal report recommended appointment of a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the matter. And Michael B. Mukasey, who makes plain his distaste for special prosecutors, agreed that in this case the need was inescapable: he appointed Nora Dannehy and gave her power to bring criminal charges if she found evidence to back them. Why is the Journal editorial page so troubled by this? Perhaps because special prosecutor Dannehy is now widely thought to be targeting one of their regular contributors, Karl Rove. Moreover, the Journal editors apparently also missed Attorney General Mukasey’s farewell speech, in which he openly acknowledged that there had been “politically influenced functioning” at the Department and expressed his confidence in the Department’s ability to overcome this. So does the New Mexico investigation tell us that the charges of politicization in the Department of Justice are a mirage? Hardly. It does show that a newspaper editor in New York can whip up a mirage in the pages of his paper if he wants to.

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