Thursday, February 05, 2009

Domenici, Bush Officials Under Grand Jury Probe in 'Attorneygate' Scandal

Did Retired New Mexico Republican Senator and Aides to the Former President Improperly Press for Controversial 2006 Dismissal of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias for Refusing to Prosecute Democrats?

Did former Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico, left) act improperly in the firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias (right) in 2006, allegedly because Iglesias refused to prosecute New Mexico Democrats? A federal grand jury is investigating whether there is enough evidence to prosecute Domenici and several senior aides to former President George W. Bush for obstruction of justice for refusing to cooperate with federal investigators probing whether the dismissal of Iglesias and other U.S. attorneys were politically motivated. (Photos courtesy

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Thursday, February 5, 2009)


Talking Points Memo

A federal grand jury probe of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys during the Bush administration is focusing on the role played by recently retired Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) and former senior Bush White House aides in the 2006 dismissal of David Iglesias as U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, according to legal sources familiar with the inquiry.

The federal grand jury is investigating whether Domenici and other political figures attempted to improperly press Iglesias to bring a criminal prosecution against New Mexico Democrats just prior to the 2006 congressional midterm elections, according to legal sources close to the investigation and private attorneys representing officials who prosecutors want to question.

Investigators appear to be scrutinizing Iglesias' firing in the context of whether he was fired in retaliation because Domenici and others believed that he would not manipulate the timing of prosecutions to help Republicans.

Previously, Domenici was severely criticized by two internal Justice Department watchdog offices, the Department's Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), for refusing to cooperate with their earlier probe of the firings of the U.S. attorneys.

In part because of their frustration that Domenici and his chief of staff, Steve Bell, as well as several senior White House officials, would not cooperate with them, the Inspector General and OPR sought that a criminal prosecutor take over their probe.

It is unclear whether Domenici will now cooperate with the criminal probe. Domenici's attorney, Lee Blalack, in an interview, declined to say what Domenici will do when he is contacted by investigators.

The focus of the grand jury probe was described by a federal law enforcement official, two witnesses who have been recently been asked to answer questions from investigators, and an attorney representing a former Justice Department official who has been told that investigators want to question his client.

People who had been contacted by investigators spoke on the condition that they not be named because they did not want to upset federal law enforcement officials who would question and investigate them and also because they believe that simply being questioned might unfairly tarnish their reputations.


The grand jury investigation is currently being led by Nora Dannehy, the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut. Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey named Dannehy to "determine whether any prosecutable offense was committed" in the course of the firings following September's report by the Inspector General and OPR on the firings.

The report found that Iglesias was fired largely as a result of complaints made to the White House by Domenici and Bell. But the report also concluded that the probe was severely "hindered" by the refusal by Domenici, Bell, and several senior Bush administration officials to cooperate with the investigation.

In its report, Justice's Inspector General and OPR provided some insight as to what potential crimes might have been omitted, and why they wanted a criminal prosecutor to take over their probe: "It is possible that those seeking Iglesias' removal did so simply because they believed he was not competently prosecuting worthwhile cases," the investigators wrote:

"However, if they attempted to pressure Iglesias to accelerate his charging decision in the courthouse case or to initiate voting fraud investigations to affect the outcome of the upcoming election, their conduct may have been criminal. The obstruction of justice makes it a crime for any person who `corruptly... influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice...'

"While we found no case charging a violation of the obstruction of justice statute involving an effort to accelerate a criminal prosecutor to indict a case for partisan political reasons, we believe that pressuring a prosecutor to indict a case more quickly to affect the outcome of an upcoming election could be a corrupt attempt to influence the prosecution in violation of the obstruction of justice statute."

Blalack, a partner with the law firm of O'Melveny and Myers, who is representing Domenici in his dealings with the Justice Department, declined to discuss anything related to the matter, including whether his client will cooperate with prosecutors conducting the current federal grand jury probe.

Domenici retired from office earlier this year, after having spent 36 years in the Senate, many of them as either the chairman or the ranking minority member of the Senate Budge Committee, and more recently as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Michael Madigan, an attorney representing Bell, did not respond to several telephone and email requests for a comment for this story.


The Justice Department's Inspector General and OPR said in the report already made public that Domenici and other New Mexico Republicans were upset that Iglesias and other influential New Mexico political officeholders and political operatives were upset with Iglesias for not aggressively enough pursuing potential political corruption and voting fraud cases against New Mexico Democrats.

At the time that Domenici contacted Iglesias about the potential criminal prosecution, Representative Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico) was in the midst of a razor-thin reelection bid, and Domenici and Wilson both believed criminal indictments brought against Democrats on the eve of the election would bolster Wilson's reelection bid.

In their report about the firings, Justice's Inspector General and OPR disclosed that Domenici called then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on at least three occasions in 2005 and 2006 to complain about Iglesias, as well as calling then-Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to make a fourth such complaint.

During the same period of time, Domenici's staffer Bell repeatedly emailed and spoke to Rove and other White House officials complaining about Iglesias or seeking his removal. The White House in turn relayed those complaints and similar ones by prominent Republican politicians and political operatives from New Mexico to political appointees in the Justice Department.

Several of the complaints by Domenici and other New Mexico Republicans to the Justice Department and White House centered on their claim that Iglesias was not aggressively enough pursuing alleged voter fraud cases by Democrats or activist groups associated with the Democratic party.

The report by the two Justice Department watchdog agencies concluded that some White House officials "believed that fraudulent registration by Democratic Party voters in New Mexico was a widespread problem and that it had cost President Bush the state in the 2000 Presidential election."

Iglesias has said that he aggressively pursued allegations of voter fraud--even setting up a task force to do examine the issue in part because of being pressed to do so by New Mexico Republicans-- only for career prosecutors and FBI agents to conclude that there no widespread voter fraud existed and there were no cases that could be prosecuted.


On October 26, 2006, only days before the crucial 2006 congressional midterm elections, Justice Department investigators wrote, Domenici telephoned Iglesias to inquire about an ongoing corruption case that Iglesias' office was pursuing.

Iglesias' office was investigating allegations that bribes were paid by contractors in connection with the construction of a new country courthouse. Democratic officials were primarily under investigation, and New Mexico Republicans, were hopeful that indictments might be brought before Election Day.

Domenici was in large part interested in learning whether charges were going to be brought before Election Day, in part, because Wilson was locked in a razor-thin re-election fight for her congressional seat. Domenici, according to Iglesias' account to investigators, inquired whether federal criminal charges were going to be brought in time for Election Day.

After Iglesias told Domenici he did not think so, Domenici replied, according to Iglesias, "Well, I'm very sorry to hear that." Iglesias said that Domenici then abruptly hung up the telephone.

Iglesias told investigators he "felt ill after the call" and that he had "believed Domenici had asked for confidential information about an ongoing investigation, and that Iglesias would pay in some way for refusing to cooperate with him."

Although Domenici has refused to be interviewed by the Justice Department -- and also declined to comment for this story -- he said in a statement in March 2007 that "in retrospect I regret making that call and apologize" and that he had "never pressured [Iglesias] or threatened him in any way."

Less than two weeks after his telephone conversation with Domenici, on December 7, 2006, Iglesias was fired as U.S. Attorney.

That very day of the firing, Deputy White House counsel William K. Kelley emailed then-Attorney General Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to report: "Domenici's COS [chief of staff] is happy as a clam." It is unclear whether Kelley, who refused to cooperate with the IG and OPR investigation will cooperate now that a criminal investigation was underway. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Wilson herself also called Iglesias shortly before Election Day, on October 16, 2006, to complain that Iglesias was delaying prosecuting Democrats in regards to the courthouse case and that such delays might be harming her reelection campaign.

Shortly after Wilson narrowly won re-election, on November 15, 2006, she told Justice Department investigators, she encountered Karl Rove at a meeting of congressional Republicans and told him "for what it's worth, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico is a waste of breath." Rove responded, she said, by telling her: "The decision has already been made. He is gone."

(Murray Waas is a longtime investigative reporter based in Washington D.C.)

# # #

Volume IV, Number 10
Special Report Copyright 2009, TPM Media LLC.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, February 02, 2009

Is It Really a New Era for Republicans with Steele as Party Boss? Don't Bet on It

GOP Chooses Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor as Its First African-American National Chairman -- But Despite Pledging to Broaden the Party's Electoral Appeal, He's Already Trying to Appease Right-Wing Hard-Liners Who've Dominated the Republicans for More Than 30 Years


Michael Steele emerged as the winner Friday of a hotly-contested race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, becoming the party's first-ever African-American national chairman. His victory came on the sixth ballot and followed a contest marked by nasty accusations of racism and corruption. But despite promises to broaden the party's electoral appeal, Steele has chosen to appease the right-wing hard-liners who have dominated the GOP for more than 30 years -- and resist the voters' clear mandate for change by calling on Republicans on Capitol Hill to block President Obama's economic stimulus package. (Photo: Getty Images)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Monday, February 2, 2009)
(Updated 12:30 p.m. EST Monday, February 2, 2009)


On the surface, it appears that the Republican Party -- still reeling from two consecutive shellackings at the ballot box in which African-Americans, Latinos, women and young people shunned GOP candidates the way Superman shuns kryptonite -- has finally decided to make a clean break from the regime of conservative, white and mostly Southern males that have dominated the party for more than 30 years.

Or have they?

At its most tumultuous gathering perhaps since the 1964 Republican National Convention that saw the right-wing takeover of the Grand Old Party from its "Eastern liberal establishment," members of the Republican National Committee elected the party's first-ever African-American chairman Friday, choosing former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele to be the party's leader for the next two years after six tumultuous rounds of voting.

Note the key word here is "tumultuous," for Steele beat out four other candidates -- three of them white Southerners and the fifth another African-American -- in a campaign marked by anonymous charges of racism and old-fashioned corruption.

A fifth candidate for the GOP chairmanship, also a white Southerner, abruptly withdrew his candidacy after becoming embroiled in a heated controversy over his distribution to RNC members of a compact disc that contained a song about President Obama that was assailed as being racially offensive.

* * * * * * * *


The Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Most Republican governors -- including 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sara Palin -- have broken with their GOP colleagues in Congress and are pushing for passage of President Obama's economic aid plan that would send billions to states for education, public works and health care.

Their state treasuries drained by the financial crisis, governors would welcome the money from Capitol Hill, where GOP lawmakers are more skeptical of Obama's spending priorities.

Palin, the governor of Alaska, planned to meet in Washington this week with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other senators to press for her state's share of the package.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist worked the phones last week with members of his state's congressional delegation, including House Republicans. Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, the Republican vice chairman of the National Governors Association, planned to be in Washington on Monday to meet with Obama at the White House and to urge the Senate to approve the plan.

* * * * * * * *

In the words of a longtime GOP stalwart, it was "the dirtiest race" for the party leadership post ever.

The outcome is being touted by Republicans as marking a new chapter in the GOP's history -- and, coupled with Barack Obama's election as the nation's first African-American president, the beginning of an entirely new chapter in American politics overall.

"We have been misdefined as a party that doesn't care, a party that's insensitive, a party that is unconcerned about minorities, a party that is unconcerned about the lives and the expectations and dreams of average Americans," Steele told reporters Friday in a news conference following his election.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he continued. "I'm saying enough's enough, that day is over. This is the dawn of a new party moving in a new direction with strength and conviction . . . It's time for something completely different."

Steele vowed that under his leadership, "We're going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be a part of us." And, in a remark that some in the mainstream media interpreted as a warning to party conservatives, he added, "To those of you who will obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."


However, it appears that despite Steele's promises to the contrary, the GOP will likely remain a fiercely conservative, Southern white-male-dominated party, hell-bent on resisting the voters' clear mandate for change by fighting President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress tooth and nail.

And it's Steele who appears likely to get "knocked over." Already, the new RNC chairman is seeking to appease hard-line GOP conservatives who consider the moderate former Maryland lieutenant governor too liberal to lead the party, citing his past membership in the Republican Leadership Council, a group of moderate Republicans that sought to curb the dominant influence of hard-line social conservatives in the party.

Almost immediately after his election, Steele told one of his chief rivals, conservative businessman and former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, that there will be a place for him in helping to run the RNC under Steele's leadership, according to The Washington Times.

On Saturday, Steele flew to the House Republican retreat at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia and urged GOP lawmakers to "remain steadfast" in their opposition to the president's $819 billion economic stimulus package, the newspaper reported.

"I'm proud to say I'm a conservative, have been, always will be," Steele told CNN in early January. "So this notion that I'm a moderate is slightly overblown, and quite frankly a lie."

Steele's overtures to conservatives, however, may not be enough to satisfy one particularly hard-line GOP constituency: Opponents of abortion. Although Steele, a Roman Catholic, is an outspoken opponent of abortion, the Republican Leadership Council which Steele once headed was a staunch supporter of GOP candidates who supported abortion rights. And that makes Steele suspect in the eyes of some anti-abortion activists.


And while Steele's election as GOP national chairman is being hailed as a milestone in America's often-ugly history of race relations comparable to Obama's ascension to the presidency, it was by no means a walk in the park. To the contrary, Steele won in a bitterly-fought contest that was riven with charges of racism.

The 168 RNC members who cast their votes for their next chairman were bombarded with anonymous e-mails attacking the characters and capabilities of the various candidates, including Steele -- and, in at least one case, accusing a rival candidate of conspiring with political consultants to cash in on the millions of dollars in future advertising by the party.

"This [was] the dirtiest [campaign for the party leadership] ever -- and remember, I was the longest-serving state party chairman in the history of this committee," RNC member and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett told the Times. Bennett was a staunch supporter of Mike Duncan, the defeated incumbent RNC chairman who sought a second two-year term.

One of Steele's rivals, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, became the target of an unsigned e-mail sent to RNC members warning them that if they elected Dawson, the party would be accused of electing a "whites-only" leader.

The e-mail was in the form of a mock USA Today front page that bore a banner headline that read, "RNC members choose 'whites only' chairman."

The intent of the e-mail was clear: The election of Dawson -- who, a month before he declared his candidacy, resigned his membership in an exclusive country club that restricted membership to whites -- would be played up by the media and by Democrats as sending a message that the GOP was a party made up of white Southern males, in spite of his candidacy being supported by several black Republicans in Dawson's home state.

Shawn Steel, a former California GOP chairman, blamed outgoing chairman Duncan for the attacks on Dawson, and accused him and his "entourage of consultants and vendors" of "feeding off the RNC for years" -- a charge Duncan denied.

"I have not, nor to my knowledge has anyone on my team had anything to do with the malicious and anonymous e-mails and accusations that have been distributed," Duncan said in response to Steel's charges. "I sent a personal message sharing this sentiment to all RNC members within the last week."


Even before RNC members gathered at Washington's Capitol Hilton Hotel to choose their next chairman, the party was forced to deal with a firestorm of negative publicity over another candidate's mailing to committee members of a compact disc containing a highly controversial song about President Obama that was roundly criticized as being racially offensive.

The song, "Barack, the Magic Negro" -- a parody of the Peter, Paul and Mary classic "Puff, the Magic Dragon" that was recorded by conservative comedian Paul Shanklin -- was distributed by former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman.

It was played on the air during the presidential campaign by conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh -- who himself generated controversy last week by openly calling for Obama's presidency to "fail" and demanding GOP lawmakers to block the president's legislative agenda.

Saltsman, who ran former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's unsuccessful bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, abruptly withdrew from the race on Thursday without explanation, saying only in a letter to RNC members, "I have decided to withdraw my candidacy." But support for Saltzman's candidacy had collapsed in the wake of the song controversy.


Steele himself was forced to face down vicious accusations by right-wing party hard-liners -- often anonymously -- that he did not possess a true conservative philosophy and that he was actually a social liberal.

On the night before the balloting began, RNC members returning to their hotel rooms found fliers that had been slipped under their doors depicting a partially unfurled roll of bathroom tissue with an accusatory headline: "Soft is fine for toilet paper but not for a chairman of the Republican National Committee!"

The fliers cited Steele's past association with the Republican Leadership Council, which he co-founded with former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman. A moderate who served as the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency during former President George W. Bush's first term, Whitman's outspoken support for abortion rights infuriated many social conservatives.

Shortly after Steele announced his candidacy for the party chairmanship, his photograph and all mention of him as a founder of the council disappeared from the RLC Web site. Among the RLC's members include the Log Cabin Republicans, which strongly supports expanding civil rights protections for gays and lesbians.

Steele said he had "joined" the council only to reach out to liberals as a conservative and help "unite the party."

James Bopp Jr., a conservative RNC member from Indiana, issued an e-mail to other committee members in which he openly accused Steele of lying about his relationship with the council.

Bopp quoted Whitman as saying that she was "proud to join with Michael Steele in creating a powerful and influential group that can bring our party back to its roots while promoting the common-sense centrist values we all hold so dear." To many hard-line conservatives in the GOP, the very word "centrist" really means "liberal" and thus is considered an insult.


That the Republicans are the minority party in need of an image makeover is beyond dispute. The number of registered Republicans has fallen to a record-low 21 percent of the electorate, according to a nationwide survey by the Gallup Organization of state voter registration records. Democrats now comprise 45 percent of the electorate, with independents making up the remaining 34 percent.

The survey found that in only seven states do Republicans outnumber Democrats: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming.

All told, 29 states and the District of Columbia had registered Democratic Party majorities of 10 percent or greater over Republicans last year, the poll found. This includes all of the states in the Northeast, and all but Indiana in the Great Lakes region.

An additional six states had Democratic majorities ranging between five and nine percent.

In an alarm bell to the Republicans for future elections, Gallup found that there are now eight states even in the South where Democrats are now the majority of registered voters, albeit narrowly: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia.

While Democrats have succeeded in swelling their ranks with people from virtually every demographic, Republicans have seen their ranks shrink dramatically, leaving it almost monolithically white. The GOP lost the support of the majority of African-American voters 40 years ago with the advent of Richard Nixon's now-infamous "Southern Strategy" of appealing to conservative white Southerners outraged by the Democrats' support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Now the party has lost the support of Latino voters alienated by the bitter revolt by GOP conservatives that scuttled President Bush's comprehensive immigration reform plan -- a revolt that saw many party conservatives resort to using intemperate, anti-Latino language in their opposition to the plan.

The GOP even lost significant support in the conservative Cuban-American community of southern Florida -- for decades one of its most loyal constituencies -- angered by the Bush administration's imposition of tough new restrictions on visits and remittances to their relatives on the communist-ruled island. Nearly 40 percent of Cuban-Americans voted for Obama in the November election -- the highest level of support for a Democrat by this community on record.

The nationally televised sight of the delegates at the 2008 Republican Convention in Minnesota last summer being almost all-white and predominantly male compared to the rainbow of diversity at the Democratic Convention the previous week in Colorado sent alarm bells ringing both inside and outside the GOP. With whites projected by the Census Bureau to cease being the majority of the U.S. population by 2050, the Republicans cannot afford to remain the almost lily-white party it is now.

The Republicans are just as monolithic ideologically. Liberals ceased to exist in the party nearly 30 years ago. By the time Ronald Reagan won the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, liberals had for the most part been effectively driven out of the party, with many defecting to the Democrats.

It's safe to say that Gerald Ford was the country's last moderate Republican president -- and even he was nearly overthrown at the 1976 GOP convention by the conservative "sagebrush rebellion" led by Reagan (which ultimately contributed to Ford's loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter).


Moderate Republicans have been an endangered species ever since -- and are now largely confined to the Northeast and the Midwest. And the farther the GOP has moved to the right, the worse their erosion of electoral support in those regions, plus the West Coast.

There is not a single Republican in the House representing New England. There is not a single Republican in the Senate representing the West Coast. The bulk of the seats the GOP lost in last November's election were in the Midwest and Southwest.

More ominously, the Republicans lost their majority of the nation's state governorships; Democratic state chief executives outnumber their Republican counterparts, 28-22.

Even worse for the Republicans: Democrats now control both houses in 27 of the 50 state legislatures, compared to the Republicans controlling both houses in 14 state legislatures -- nearly all of them in the Deep South and the Rocky Mountain West. Seven legislatures are under split party control.

(Nebraska's single-chamber legislature, although technically non-partisan, is controlled by the GOP. In Alaska, the 20-member state Senate is controlled by a unique coalition of 10 moderate Democrats and five moderate Republicans, with the remaining five seats held by conservative Republicans).

Against this backdrop, Steele has a very tough task ahead of him if he wants to expand the Republican Party's electoral appeal, a task made even tougher by the possibility that some hard-line GOP conservatives may view him as a threat to their dominant influence in the party and try to undermine him.

# # #

Volume IV, Number 9
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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