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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Finding Justice
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Finding Justice

When scandals hit the Department of Justice, former US Attorney David Iglesias was in the eye of the storm  

June 4, 2008, 12:00 am

When he became US attorney for New Mexico in 2001, David Iglesias thought of the job as a "dream come true." In December 2006, that dream became a nightmare, as Iglesias became one of seven US attorneys dismissed by the US Department of Justice. When Iglesias and his colleagues began to speak out about the political motivations for the firings, they invoked a national scandal, which ultimately led to the unraveling of the Justice Department.

This week, SFR presents an excerpt from Iglesias' newly released book, In Justice, Inside the Scandal That Rocked the Bush Administration. We also caught up with Iglesias, who is now an executive advisor for the international corporation Booz Allen Hamilton, to talk about writing the book, the impact of the scandal on New Mexico politics and what comes next.

In Justice
Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration.
From Chapter Six: "The Link"
By David Iglesias

In the wake of my firing on December 7, 2006, all manner of milestones, crossroads, and points of no return became retrospectively apparent.

But there was none more singular than the call I received from Pete Domenici on that crisp October morning. I knew by my deep-seated feeling of distress, as I sat there with the mute phone in my hand, that something ominous had just occurred, for me, for my family, and for the office of U.S. Attorney in the District of New Mexico. It was an instinctive realization that was confirmed over and over in the scandal that would subsequently engulf me, not least in the considered opinions of both my critics and my allies, who parsed out my response to Domenici's unwarranted inquiries that morning.

There were those who pointed out that for all the innuendo that made the conversation so fraught, the senator never once actually said the name of Manny Aragon or made any specific mention of the courthouse case. By the same token, any assumption I might make as to the import of his call was just that. Maybe I was, after all, just being paranoid.

My response to that is simple: I wasn't born yesterday. I knew what Domenici wanted, and he knew what he wanted, and it was on the basis of that unspoken understanding that rank was pulled, pressure brought to bear, and accommodation sought with a wink and a nudge. The senator was too canny a politician to come right out and say what he wanted, and, in his way, he was giving me credit for being smart enough to figure out what he was after. But it wasn't rocket science, and I certainly didn't need it spelled out for me. 

Others, including a former U.S. Attorney who stated this on national television, said that my proper response should have been to tell the honorable senator to "go to hell." Maybe so. And if Domenici hadn't been a beneficent mentor, a powerful public figure, and a man for whom I had great admiration-and to whom I owed a great obligation-that would certainly have been an option. But he was, and it wasn't. Yet it went even further than purely professional considerations. Pete Domenici was old enough to be my father, and I had been taught to honor and defer to my elders.

Given my military background, it was likewise inevitable that I would come to view him as a de facto five-star admiral on the ship of state where I was serving as an executive officer. Old habits of hierarchy, obedience, and duty are not easily set aside. It's simple enough to summon courage and even righteous indignation in the abstract but considerably harder when sitting in your bedroom on a bright morning with your whole professional life suddenly hanging in the balance. I make no excuses. My own moment of truth and redemption-many of them, as a matter of fact-would be coming soon enough. 

On that morning, though, I was still a long way from realizing what exactly had transpired. Hanging up the phone, I looked across the room to where Cyndy was standing just a few feet away. She had overheard my end of the conversation, and the look on her face must have mirrored the one on my own.

"Who was that?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

"It was Pete Domenici," I replied, looking down at the receiver and wondering if, by some chance, we had been disconnected and he hadn't been as abrupt and discourteous as he had seemed. Only later did I learn that the senator had a reputation for cutting short any conversations that displeased him, on the phone by hanging up abruptly. I briefly considered calling him back. Perhaps it had just been a technical glitch, but even as the thought occurred to me, I dismissed it. Domenici's demand had been as clear as his response when the request wasn't fulfilled forthwith.

"What did he want?" Cyndy asked me, still rooted to her spot on the carpet. We traded a look, and I could see the fear that I couldn't hide reflected in her eyes. Something bad had just happened, and, in the way of husbands and wives, that reality flashed wordlessly between us.

"He wanted to know when I was going to file the corruption case," I told her. It was easy to see from her startled reaction that my wife understood the implications of the call, although, in point of fact, all that she knew about the Aragon case was what she, along with everyone else, was reading in the newspapers. Spouses of U.S. Attorneys are certainly not included in the need-to-know circle of an ongoing federal investigation, and Cyndy had long since learned what not to ask. But she hardly had to be an insider to grasp the precarious position in which we suddenly found ourselves. She knew only too well what Domenici represented, both politically and personally, and what it meant to get on his bad side. It was as if, in that moment, we both shared some burden akin to a guilty secret, as well as the unspoken hope that the whole incident would simply fade away like a bad dream.

But as profound as that hope might have been, I was also aware that Domenici's call could very well have an effect on the Aragon investigation itself. It was important that someone in the upper echelons of my office be made aware of the political pressure being brought to bear on the developing case. That someone was my first assistant, Larry Gomez, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the New Mexico U.S. Attorney's office and, among other things, a top-notch narcotics prosecutor. Although Larry wasn't directly handling the Aragon case, as first assistant he had an oversight function in all the operations of the office and had been briefed by the FBI on its progress. Like me, Larry knew that we were close to filing indictments on the suspects in the courthouse swindle but were certainly not close enough to predict a date. He was naturally shocked when I told him about the call from Domenici.

What I think we both avoided addressing as we discussed what had happened was what should be done about it. I was still struggling with a misplaced sense of loyalty to the senator and, much more so than with Heather Wilson, was reluctant to even consider reporting the incident. At that stage, the last thing I wanted was to further stir this seamy political stew, much less bring it to a boil.

But as time passed, the implications that I tried to ignore or avoid began to crowd in on me. It wasn't just that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was clear enough that crossing Domenici would have consequences considerably more dire than the fallout from telling Heather Wilson, in so many words, to mind her own business. I simply didn't believe that she had the clout to do me any real harm. The senator was another matter entirely, and all I could do was wait uneasily for how he might choose to express his disappointment.

What instead captured my attention in the days immediately following Domenici's phone call were the first faint glimmerings of a web of connections among these events, the upcoming election, and the overarching ambitions of the Republican Party to rescue its dream of permanent political hegemony. As it faced a restive and disgruntled electorate in that crucial midterm election, a kind of panic had descended on the party and, with it, a determination to cut corners and bend rules to hang onto power. It was that panic, I was convinced, that had prompted Wilson and Domenici to ratchet up the stakes on the Aragon investigation. The wagons were circled. You were either for them or against them, and for the first time in my political life, I felt the stinging sensation of ostracism.

Then came December 7, and the sting became a deep wound. In the aftermath, Cyndy and I spent hours in the hot tub that we could no longer afford, trying to piece together some feasible reason for my firing. I knew from the years I had served that there are only two legitimate reasons a U.S. Attorney is taken out: the first is, obviously, misconduct; the second, performance. But it was hard to square either of those with the consistently high ratings my office had gotten, including numerous votes of confidence from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. During visits to my office, most recently in the summer of that year, the attorney general seemed to be making a point of letting me know what a great job I was doing. There was no mention of problems or any suggestion that my job was in jeopardy, not during our face-to-face or later, when we had dinner together.

Like many Hispanics, I felt a lot of pride when, in 2005, Gonzales was confirmed as the successor to John Ashcroft and became the eightieth attorney general of the United States. I had followed his career with some interest, especially since we shared a similar background: his Mexican grandparents, his working-class upbringing. These were origin stories I could relate to. Our paths crossed occasionally at various U.S. Attorney conferences, and in the summer of 2005, I invited him to New Mexico to attend a border conference I was hosting. After staying a day, he rushed back to Washington, D.C., as news of the London terrorist bombings broke, while, as recently as August 2006, he had made an official visit to New Mexico. At his side on that occasion was his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.

But my first encounter with Gonzales was back when he was the White House counsel in 2001. It was a few months after I'd become a U.S. Attorney, and I had asked for a few minutes of his time to introduce myself. Those few minutes turned into an hour as we got to know each other. He even asked me who my hero was, and I told him that it was my father. But it was something else he said that had really stuck in my mind. "This is a tough town," he told me. "They are out to destroy the president, and it is my job to protect him."

From all the evidence that followed in the disastrous wake of his tenure, it was a conviction he carried with him into the Department of Justice. And it explains completely, at least to me, why he did what he did or, rather, failed to do. Simply put, Alberto Gonzales lost his way. He chose loyalty to Bush over fealty to the Constitution and his sworn duty to uphold it. To Gonzales, duty meant not standing up against improper political hirings and firings or speaking out against warrentless wiretaps or telling Karl Rove and his operatives in Main Justice to go pound sand. But that's not what happened, and we are where we are as the direct result of one of the most acute leadership crises in the history of the Justice Department.



TURN THE PAGE
David Iglesias talks about life before-and after-the scandal.

by Julia Goldberg


SFR: Given all the publicity the US attorneys scandal brought, and how many times you, yourself, have been interviewed on the topic, what was your goal in writing a book about it? What did you feel you wanted to express?
DI: What I wanted to do in one manageable bite is to make clear why this is such a big deal. This is not just a political scandal; it involves one of the things that sets this country apart from most countries, and that is the rule of law. I really wanted people to understand, you don't mix politics with prosecutions. You always have a bad result when you do that. And fortunately I don't think it happens very often, especially at the federal level. But this matter involved not just New Mexico, but lots of other federal districts. I think it really caused a lot of damage to the reputation of the Justice Department, which had the reputation of being above politics.

You discuss in the book the inherent contradiction in the position of US attorney: the requirement of complete impartiality in the context of being a political appointee. Does what happened under [former US Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales indicate a contemporary need to change the way this office works?
That's a good question; I've been asked that before. The only thing I could think that would really insulate US attorneys from this type of interference is to extend the term of the appointment. Right now it's a four-year appointment. For instance, the FBI director serves for a 10-year term. I think 10 years is probably too long for US attorneys, but maybe a six-year term or an eight-year term-and make it really difficult to fire somebody; change the US code so that the only reason you can fire a US attorney is for cause.

You write also about the pressure you were under from Republican leaders to bring these voter-fraud cases, and the conclusions you reached, here in New Mexico, that there were no instances that warranted bringing charges. Yet concerns about election integrity here, and elsewhere, continue leading into the '08 elections. Are these concerns a remnant of the partisan divisions you write about, or is there any reason for the public to be worried that their elections aren't fair?
Based on my review of the alleged voter-fraud issues here in New Mexico, and also doing a little bit of research in other districts in the country, it's my conclusion that voter fraud is not a systemic widespread problem. There are instances of voter fraud: I had one case of a senior citizen that came into my office and brought a piece of paper showing someone had voted for him. I said, 'Sir I appreciate the wrongfulness of what happened, but I can't prosecute it, I don't have evidence showing who did this.' We don't want to set up cameras at polling stations. We don't want people standing watch in voting booths. I guess I'm feeling there is some voter fraud out there, but in terms of rising to the level of affecting the outcome of an election, the evidence does not support that. And that's what I testified to in front of the US Senate in March, just a couple of months ago, the Senate Rules Committee. I think I was the only Republican who they called and what I told them was, 'Look, I was looking to prosecute cases, I believed they existed, but you can't prosecute without having a compelling case.' And also the federal law, as it's currently written, makes it very difficult for a US attorney to convict somebody at trial because one of the elements you have to prove is they committed the fraudulent act to affect the outcome of the election. And in most cases they're doing it to earn money.
 
Reading your book was the first time I got the distinct sense that US Sen. Pete Domenici's call to you had been motivated by US Rep. Heather Wilson complaining directly to him after her call to you. You don't say this explicitly, but is it what you think?
There's a simple reason for that: Because I could not prove in a court of law that that happened. But if you look at the timeline, I believe that's what happened, there's circumstantially good evidence. Her call came first.

I gave her absolutely nothing, and I'm convinced she picked up the phone and called her mentor and said, 'I tried calling Dave Iglesias and didn't get anything from him, can you help me out?' and I'm sure he said, 'Absolutely.' But again, I don't have phone records, I don't have any witnesses saying that's what happened, but I believe that is what happened.

Given your narrative about the incredible power Domenici held in this state, do you think the near-complete shakeups for New Mexico's congressional delegation this year could be good?
Absolutely. Any politician that stays in power that long, I think, is subject to the temptation of power, and I think it's the rare politician that successfully manages to stay away from it. I think of the Greek myth of Odysseus and the sirens; he makes his men plug their ears to the sirens' call and he leaves his open and it drives him crazy. That's how I picture politics, virtually nobody is immune from the sirens' call, and I think the longer you stay in office the more likely it is you will compromise yourself or compromise your party's values.

You write that you believe Domenici's brain disease might have led to his call to you. I haven't heard you say that before.
Here's why I say that. I talked to one of his staffers, a guy in Santa Fe who had worked for him in the '80s and '90s, and he told me, 'Look, what you have to understand Dave, is I remember Domenici telling all of his staffers, you never try to call a prosecutor and try to influence him or her to do anything.' And I said, 'Well, why do you think he made the call then?' And he said, 'Well, his judgment was impacted.' And why would his judgment be impacted? Well, he's got this brain disease. I think it's a very plausible explanation for why he would break his own directive.

It sounds like you have some compassion for Domenici at this point.
I do. He's an old guy who, for the most part, had served his country and state honorably and he stumbled at the finish line. I take that as a lesson for all of us.

In your book you write about how you were seen after you spoke out, saying that some in the GOP saw you as a traitor, others saw this as a chance to redeem the values of the party, and that Democrats hoped you'd become their poster boy. You didn't like any of those roles. How would you describe how you see your role?
Just as somebody who saw a wrong and wanted to speak out and was fortunate enough to have colleagues that were also willing to speak out. I don't think any of us had an idea of a huge crusade to clean up the DOJ, because at the beginning, we didn't know how extensive this politicization was. It took us months to figure it out.

You also talk about the sense of mission you were imbued with after 9.11, as well as the provisional change to the USA Patriot Act that allowed for these firings. Do you think any of this would have happened but for 9.11?
That's a really excellent observation, and I think that a lot of the overreaching of the Justice Department and the so-called unitary executive theory that essentially says in a time of war the president is first among equals, which I believe is clearly unconstitutional and not supported by history, could not have happened but for 9.11. That Act transformed law enforcement and it transformed it in some areas in a negative manner. I think [the executive branch] felt, 'We've got this mandate from the people to protect them and we're willing to cut corners, we're willing to put out torture memos that are clearly against international law, we're willing to go forward with warrantless wire-tapping programs, even through the Constitution says otherwise and John Ashcroft says otherwise.' 9.11 was a transformative experience in lots of ways and some of the practical applications were pretty negative. I think it's going to take some time to work out the bugs to have the other branches of government get back in the game and find some balance there.

So do you have a horse in the race for the presidential election?
No, I'm staying completely out of politics.

Are you enjoying life in the private sector?
Yeah, it's different. It's nice to not have to watch my back like you do when you're a political appointee, although I will say had you asked me in 2001 whether I would have to watch my back as US attorney, I would have said, 'Of course not.'

But you're not bitter.
I really try to practice what I preach about forgiveness. If I'm a bitter little guy, my faith is worthless. People make mistakes, even people like [Albuquerque Republican lawyer] Pat Rogers, who has been very vocal in criticizing me. I've tried to find a good one line to describe what I feel about him, not what I think about him, but what I feel about him, and the closest I could come is: He is an unwitting instrument of God's will. He did a job that affected me, I forgive him for that, and it resulted in some pretty amazing opportunities for me. It's weird how life works out. I had no idea I would end up writing a book, one that appears to have some interest in some quarters and it's presented me with some great opportunities, so I'm not bitter. It's unfortunate it happened, but not because of me. It's not about my job, it's about the absolute necessity of keeping politics out of prosecutions. That's what the bigger issue is, ensuring our criminal justice system stays pure.

And this case isn't over.
The really big magnum opus that's out there is the Inspector General report, which should be made public very soon. They keep calling me for follow-up questions, and other people, so what that tells me is they keep finding more things to investigate. I'm hopeful with a new administration and a new attorney general, they'll be able to put this in the past and the Justice Department will go back to being held in high esteem.

 

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