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Domenici Hires Top D.C. Lawyer

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
    WASHINGTON— Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has hired a top Washington lawyer to represent him in a potential ethics inquiry stemming from his pre-election telephone call to then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias.
    Meanwhile, partisans on both sides jumped into the fray.
    Democrats heaped criticism on Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson; Republicans defended their beleaguered congressional colleagues and echoed Justice Department claims that Iglesias— who was asked to resign late last year— wasn't up to the job of New Mexico's top federal prosecutor.
    Chris Gallegos, Domenici's spokesman, confirmed that the senator last week hired Lee Blalack, who has represented disgraced former Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
    "Retaining legal counsel was viewed as prudent to be prepared for any possible eventuality," Gallegos said Wednesday.
    Domenici and Wilson face ethics scrutiny by their peers after Iglesias accused them Tuesday, during Senate and House committee hearings, of calling him in October to inquire about public corruption cases in New Mexico.
    Iglesias has said he felt pressured to speed up indictments in an Albuquerque courthouse corruption investigation expected to involve prominent Democrats. The calls came in October, in advance of the Nov. 7 election, in which Wilson faced a tough challenge from Democrat Patricia Madrid.
    Congressional ethics rules allow status inquiries but prohibit the kind of pressure alleged by Iglesias— and denied by Domenici and Wilson.
    The Senate Ethics Committee has signaled it will look into the allegations against Domenici, but Gallegos said the senator had not been notified of any action as of late Wednesday.
    It is unclear whether a similar inquiry will be launched by the House Ethics Committee against Wilson, but Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told The Hill newspaper that the panel "has an obligation to look at" a complaint against Wilson.
    A public watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, this week called for congressional ethics inquiries into both.
    Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director, said she thought Domenici could receive a warning, but didn't anticipate action in the House because it would require a member to file a complaint.
    A spokesman for Wilson said Wednesday that she has not retained legal counsel.
    Blalack is a partner with O'Melveny & Myers' Washington, D.C., office. According to the firm's Web site, he represents "targets of grand jury, congressional, and regulatory investigations."
    Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, said Domenici is allowed to use his campaign contributions to pay for Blalack's representation.
    James Fuller, Domenici's former political director, said he's not surprised his former boss has hired high-dollar legal counsel.
    "Pete Domenici has been a senator for 34 years, and he's never had an ethical issue arise like this, so he'll get the best counsel he can get," Fuller said.
Local reaction
    The sudden political trouble looming over Domenici and Wilson had plenty of New Mexico political figures, including Madrid, talking this week.
    Madrid, who lost to Wilson by 862 votes in last fall's congressional race, said the admission by Domenici and Wilson that they made the calls was "shocking" and a "blatant disregard" for ethics rules.
    "When a very powerful senator who holds the power to get you fired makes a call like that to you ... absolutely that's pressure," Madrid, the state's former attorney general, said in a telephone interview Monday.
    Madrid also said those who were frustrated by the slow pace of corruption indictments in the U.S. Attorney's Office might not understand how hard public malfeasance cases are to prosecute.
    Madrid herself was the target of criticism for bringing criminal charges against cooperating witnesses in the federal case against former Treasurer Robert Vigil— a move that caused an important prosecution witness to refuse to testify in Vigil's second trial.
    Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, a Republican Party leader, told the Journal this week that he wasn't surprised to see Iglesias fired for poor job performance.
    White said he "heard a lot of talk" about Iglesias being replaced starting shortly after the 2004 election. He also said he wasn't surprised Domenici asked Iglesias what was going on.
    "I personally think he was hearing the grumbling," White said of Domenici. "There was a lot of talk and much of it was in the paper, that the corruption case was getting bogged down. People were asking questions about what was going on in U.S. Attorney's Office."
Iglesias criticized
    On Tuesday, Iglesias said the calls from Domenici and Wilson were the first complaints he heard about his job performance.
    "That was news to me," he said during congressional testimony Tuesday.
    Republican lawyer Paul Kennedy, a prominent Albuquerque defense attorney and a former state Supreme Court Justice, said Wednesday that criticism Iglesias "delegated too much authority was appropriate."
    He also said Iglesias, a President Bush appointee who has called Domenici a mentor, was the "epitome of an ingrate" for attacking the people who fostered him politically and tried to get him additional resources.
    Iglesias has come under tough questioning for not reporting the calls as required by Justice Department regulations. He went public only after he had been told he would be replaced and poor job performance was mentioned.
    He has said he felt betrayed by Domenici and Wilson.
    Republican attorney Pat Rogers said he met with Iglesias in October to ask about the courthouse investigation because "everyone in the community was asking why Iglesias wasn't moving forward..."
    Rogers said Iglesias seemed "out of touch."
    The state Democratic Party took aim, issuing a statement that said the incident had exposed the depths of "Wilson's hypocrisy."
    "It's a real shame when people who present themselves as honest disgrace their political careers and their constituents by placing partisan gain above ethical performance," said state party Chairman John Wertheim.
    He called their "politically motivated intervention into the judicial process a very grave matter."
    Brian Sanderoff, a longtime New Mexico political observer, said Wilson, an eight-year congressional veteran, is more likely to take a hard political hit than Domenici, with 34 years in Congress. Both are up for re-election in 2008.
    "Domenici has a deeper reservoir of support to draw from," Sanderoff said.
    Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher contributed to this report.

E-MAIL writer Michael Coleman