WASHINGTON _ New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his name from nomination as commerce secretary Sunday, saying a federal probe that has reached into his office could last months and was certain to bog down his confirmation.
President-elect Barack Obama said he would move quickly to fill the position but named no replacement for Richardson, who intends to remain governor. His withdrawal made him the Obama Cabinet's first failed nominee, and came even before the first confirmation hearings, expected to begin later this month.
Richardson, in a statement released Sunday, said "unequivocally" that he and his New Mexico administration "have acted properly in all matters and that this investigation will bear out that fact."
But, he added, "I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process. Given the gravity of the economic situation the nation is facing, I could not in good conscience ask the President-elect and his Administration to delay for one day the important work that needs to be done."
It was not immediately clear whether Richardson's decision was prompted by a new revelation in the probe, or a change of heart on the part of Obama's team or the Senate Democrats preparing to hold confirmation hearings.
Reports of a federal investigation into possible pay-to-play actions by a California firm that did business with New Mexico first surfaced in mid-December, after Obama had tapped Richardson for the post. As recently as last week, Democratic and Republican aides were preparing for his confirmation hearings to go forward.
A federal grand jury is looking how CDR Financial Products, a California-based firm that gave $100,000 to Richardson political committees, got $1.5 million in state contracts.
Obama campaigned last year on promises to reduce corruption and the influence of special interests in Washington. Now, Obama and Senate Democrats are seeking to keep their distance from Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whom federal prosecutors have accused of corruption including seeking to sell Obama's vacated Senate seat.
Obama, in a statement, said he looked forward to Richardson's future service in his administration and that "it is a measure of his willingness to put the nation first that he has removed himself as a candidate for the Cabinet in order to avoid any delay in filling this important economic post at this critical time."
Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador and energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, was among Obama's early opponents for the Democratic nomination. After dropping out, he joined Obama's camp, endorsing him over rival Sen. Hillary Clinton.
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