Sunday, April 15, 2007
Iglesias Had Varied Critics During Career
By Mike Gallagher
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Investigative Reporter
In 2005, Doña Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez had a nearly beheaded teenage corpse on a ditch bank.
In 2006, Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White had a deputy dead in the East Mountains.
Federal law enforcement agencies led by the FBI were there to help.
But Martinez and White said they had to kick and scream to get the attention of the U.S. Attorney's Office, run by fellow Republican David Iglesias.
Martinez threatened to go to the president of the United States to get help in her case. It worked, and federal prosecutors took over the drug-related kidnapping and homicide.
White's investigators wanted help from federal prosecutors in getting wiretaps in their investigation into the slaying of Deputy James McGrane. White said they threw up their hands and followed an assistant Bernalillo County prosecutor back to his office and spent the night typing wiretap affidavits for a state judge's signature.
Martinez took a laundry list of complaints about Iglesias to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. Iglesias was Domenici's "guy." Domenici walked Iglesias' nomination through the Senate. If Iglesias wouldn't listen, maybe Domenici would.
White had a laundry list, too. He not only took it to Domenici but carried it over to Iglesias' bosses at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Domenici began receiving complaints about Iglesias in 2003 and initially centered on the prosecutor's frequent absences.
John Ashcroft was U.S. attorney general at the time and had appointed Iglesias to numerous Justice Department committees that took him out of state. Also, Iglesias had active duty under his Naval Reserve commitments.
The complaints tended to come in bunches but increased in 2004 as the presidential election drew closer.
New Mexico Republicans were angry at what they thought was a lack of action by Iglesias in dealing with fraudulent voter registration forms turned in by some organizations that paid people to register new voters.
Domenici and his staff apparently believed Iglesias could handle the issue with news conferences and a few referrals to state prosecutors.
But state Republican leaders soured on Iglesias over the issue, and Domenici's staff began having doubts about whether he had the public relations skills they were counting on.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said the office was not going to comment about any perceived disputes with other law enforcement agencies.
As time passed, Domenici heard complaints about Iglesias from law enforcement officials, current and former assistant U.S. Attorneys, lawyers practicing in federal court, state Republican Party leaders and some crime victims.
One of the people complaining was White, another up-and-coming Republican.
While unhappy with Iglesias' handling of the voter registration problem, he was also upset about law enforcement issues.
In the spring of 2006, White took his complaints directly to the Department of Justice where he met with Attorney General Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson and others.
"They loved David (Iglesias)," White said. "I started in on my complaints and they pulled out a sheet. They told me there couldn't be a problem. David had great numbers."
Having "great numbers" on immigration, narcotics and illegal firearms prosecutions was important at the upper echelon of the Justice Department, where Iglesias' stock was relatively high.
But critics say the numbers can be deceiving.
"It doesn't matter if the case is a complicated multi-defendant conspiracy or a mule (a person transporting) carrying marijuana across the border," one federal prosecutor told the Journal. "Those cases are essentially the same when reduced to the numbers."
The temptation is to take the simpler "mule" cases over those more difficult to prosecute but that might have significant impact on drug trafficking.
White had committed his investigators to a federal investigation involving multiple homicides connected to a group of drug dealers.
Federal prosecutors opted to take the narcotics cases but to White's chagrin they left the homicides to be prosecuted in state court, where penalties tend to be lighter.
"Everyone likes David personally, but it was getting to the point that every case had to be wrapped with a nice pretty bow before his office would take it," White said. "And I'm not alone. I know a lot of other law enforcement agencies felt the same way."
The U.S. Attorney's Office had spearheaded an investigation into the shooting deaths of three teens in the East Mountains, tied to the theory that the killings were part of a drug deal.
That investigation ended abruptly and White's investigators were left to pursue the investigation for years without help from federal prosecutors.
Sheriff's investigators finally made an arrest this year and a defendant is awaiting trial in state court.
White was also upset about what he viewed as lack of support after McGrane was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Tijeras.
Investigators wanted wiretaps to help track down their main suspect, Michael Astorga. White says the U.S. Attorney's Office was less than helpful, while the FBI threw its full weight behind the hunt.
"Basically, they gave all the reasons we couldn't get federal wiretaps," White said. "The (state) District Attorney's Office got them for us."
Astorga was eventually tracked down with the help of the wiretaps in Mexico and brought back to New Mexico to face charges in McGrane's shooting.
Trouble in Las Cruces
District Attorney Martinez has 24 prosecutors in her Las Cruces office, handling everything from DWIs to homicides.
There are 26 prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Las Cruces, who for the most part process illegal immigration cases.
Federal prosecutors in Las Cruces have also complained to Domenici's staff and the Justice Department about Iglesias in recent years.
Justice Department reports show officials in Washington were concerned about low morale in Las Cruces. Prosecutors there complained they were "processing" large caseloads of immigration cases rather than prosecuting criminal cases.
Martinez said she got no response when she asked the U.S. Attorney's Office for help on a group of teenage immigrant smugglers operating below the federal prosecutors' radar.
"They had figured out what the federal threshold was for prosecution (the number of aliens a smuggler has to be caught with before the U.S. Attorney would take a case) so they would bring in fewer aliens than the feds would prosecute," Martinez said.
"I had complaints from Hatch and held a town meeting," she said. "The U.S. Attorney's Office didn't send a representative."
She also said she had to raise a stink before the U.S. Attorney's Office agreed to take over a drug/kidnapping/murder case that originated in Texas and ended in Doña Ana County.
"It shouldn't be a struggle to get them to prosecute," she said.
It got to the point Martinez said, "Where you don't even make the call because you know they won't respond."
Funds held up
New Mexico law enforcement agencies were expecting to get about $8 million this year from the U.S. Office of National Drug Policy.
That money was supposed to finance the New Mexico High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HITDA, program, which pays for local narcotics agents' overtime, money for undercover operations, wiretaps and other costs for narcotics enforcement.
That money is being held up by the federal drug czar's office because of problems dating back to 2003 that haven't been corrected by the local executive board overseeing the program.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has a seat on that board, and past U.S. attorneys have served as chairmen.
"David Iglesias never came to the meetings," said Martinez. "He didn't send his number two or number three."
She said one of the "specific findings" that led to freezing the money was lack of participation by Iglesias or one of his top deputies.
The federal money pays for some of Martinez's prosecutors who handle the hundreds of drug cases the U.S. Attorney's Office hands off to state prosecutors.
Martinez said the program is operating with money from the last fiscal year and said the board consisting of prosecutors and representatives of state and federal law enforcement agencies is working to correct the situation.
"It has the potential to impact the entire state and didn't have to happen," Martinez said.
A Democratic prosecutor who didn't want her name involved concurred with Martinez's view of Iglesias' job performance.
Las Vegas, New Mexico, banker Robert Levenson doesn't normally deal with prosecutors. But in 2002 he believed the bank was being defrauded through a check kiting scheme involving a local company.
Millions of dollars were involved, but the case wasn't indicted until October 2004. It was plea bargained last year and probationary sentences were handed down.
Levenson took his complaints about the U.S. Attorney's Office to Domenici three years ago.
"I believe justice delayed is justice denied," Levenson said. "We have been advised to not specifically comment on the case as it remains unresolved after more than five long years."
He says he was happy Iglesias was fired.
Was he qualified?
In the end, David Iglesias was something of a favorite in the Justice Department while Domenici was a critic. That was a role reversal of sorts.
Before he was confirmed by the Senate in 2001, career Justice Department attorneys approached Domenici's staff and questioned whether Iglesias' prior experience prepared him for the job in what they considered a "tough border state."
Domenici had pushed Iglesias for the job, giving his name to the president. The senator's staff downplayed those concerns, concentrating on Iglesias' "political upside" including his military service, Hispanic heritage and religious beliefs.
Telegenic and poised in front of television cameras and able to give a good speech in front of an audience, he was seen as a natural for future political office.
They believed, according to several sources, that at the outset Iglesias would be the public face while the many veteran prosecutors in the office would give him time to learn the ropes.
But from Domenici's point of view, even those relatively low expectations went unfulfilled.
The office under Iglesias had one of the lowest media profiles in the country with a part-time media person, few press releases, no Web site and few public appearances.
This was part of a conscious decision within the office where the media was seen as an "enemy" and publicity could only hurt.
At his farewell news conference, Iglesias joked that he was often referred to as the "District Attorney" and that many New Mexicans were unfamiliar with what his position actually was.