WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Pete Domenici apologized Sunday for calling the U.S. attorney he helped install in New Mexico to inquire about the timing of an ongoing federal corruption case involving at least one Democrat.
U.S. Attorney David Iglesias told McClatchy Newspapers last week that he believed the call was timed in mid-October to pressure him to rush the investigation before the November elections to benefit Republicans. Iglesias, who stepped down Wednesday, added that he believed he was fired because he resisted and did not speed up the case.
Domenici said in his statement that he never pressured or threatened Iglesias.
"In retrospect, I regret making that call and I apologize," he 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."
Domenici also acknowledged that he asked the Justice Department to replace Iglesias, but said he made the request before calling about the corruption probe.
Although Iglesias had received a positive job evaluation from the Justice Department before being fired, Domenici said he had been concerned about Iglesias' leadership of the office. According to Domenici's statement on Sunday, Iglesias' office at the time was "swamped by unresolved new federal cases, especially in the areas of immigration and illegal drugs."
Domenici did not specify when his call to Iglesias took place, except to say he made it late last year.
Initially, Domenici had refused to directly respond to the allegations, but he said Sunday that he decided to offer his side of the story because of "substantial public interest."
Two individuals with knowledge of the contact have told McClatchy Newspapers that U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., also called to press Iglesias for details of the case. Wilson appeared miffed after Iglesias was "non-responsive" to her questions about whether an indictment would be unsealed, said the two individuals, who asked not to be identified because they feared possible political repercussions. A spokesman for Wilson did not return calls Sunday.
Experts said efforts to intervene with a prosecutor could represent ethical violations. Iglesias said the calls were about his investigation of an $82 million courthouse contract.
Domenici's acknowledgement is expected to dominate hearings Tuesday as the House and Senate probe the administration's sudden firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Most were notified on Dec. 7.
Questions about the firings have continued to plague Justice Department officials who have said most of the firings were motivated by "performance-related" reasons.
Justice Department officials said they had not known about any congressional contact and questioned why Iglesias did not report the allegations, as he was required to do under departmental policy.
"Any suggestion that David Iglesias was removed as U.S. attorney to interfere with any public integrity investigation is plainly wrong and ill-conceived," said Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman. "The Department was unaware that such a conversation between the senator and the U.S. attorney happened."
Experts have said mass firings in the middle of an administration are unprecedented, although incoming administrations often remove prosecutors appointed by their predecessors.
Justice Department officials have downplayed the firings as internal administrative decisions based on individual concerns about each U.S. attorney's overall performance.
"This included performance concerns about ineffectively prosecuting departmental priority areas, failure to follow departmental guidelines, or just an overall inability to lead and effectively manage a U.S. Attorney's office," Roehrkasse said.
The Justice Department, however, has recently appeared to have backed off from their explanation that the firings were mostly "performance-related," by adding that policy differences also could have played a part in the decisions.
Lost in the allegations of political retaliation is the original cause of the controversy. Democrats first raised questions about the firings after noticing that a change in the Patriot Act might be interpreted to allow interim U.S. attorneys put in by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to remain in office without Senate confirmation. Gonzales has since promised that the administration would continue to seek confirmation of U.S. attorney candidates despite the new law. Bills are pending in the House and the Senate that would undo the changes.
Roehrkasse said a Justice Department official will be testifying Tuesday and despite Congress' continuing questions about the matter "we have been very forthcoming with members of Congress."
But Democrats and some Republicans have continued to express skepticism about the administration's explanation, since most of the fired prosecutors had positive job evaluations.
Some Democrats also questioned whether the firings were connected at all to the ongoing corruption cases that several of the prosecutors were conducting before they were fired.
Since Iglesias has gone public with his allegations, some Republicans in New Mexico have predicted that his political career is over.
Iglesias declined comment Sunday, citing a request from Senate staffers that he remain silent until the Tuesday hearings. In previous interviews, he has defended his leadership of the office, pointing out that his pursuit of immigration and gun cases—two of the administration's major priorities—surpassed his predecessors.
"As to Senator Domenici's apology, I accept it and look forward to testifying," he said.