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          Front Page

Iglesias' Tenure A Low-Key Affair

By Mike Gallagher
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Investigative Reporter
    In the summer of 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was preparing for a quick trip to New Mexico to visit U.S. Attorney David Iglesias.
    His staff prepared a briefing memo giving Gonzales an overview of New Mexico operations, hitting on topics such as significant cases, staffing levels and caseloads.
    The memo wasn't especially laudatory, but it didn't raise significant issues concerning how Iglesias was running the office. It hit some prosecution highlights and skipped a couple of egg-on-the-face cases.
    It didn't hint at questions raised by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and other New Mexico Republicans as early as 2004 over how Iglesias was running the office and how he handled alleged voter fraud complaints.
    Nor did it hint at an undercurrent of discontent apparently shared by some of the lawyers who worked for Iglesias before he left office on Feb. 28.
    Iglesias is front and center in a national controversy sparked after he and seven other U.S. attorneys were fired. He has said he felt pressured by telephone calls made by Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., before last November's election to inquire about indictments in a public corruption investigation.
    Iglesias, who didn't report the calls to his superiors as required, now says he felt he was fired for not moving quickly enough on the indictments.
    Domenici, who has hired a prominent Washington, D.C., attorney to represent him in any ethics inquiry, has acknowledged making the call and apologized. But he said he in no way pressured Iglesias.
    Wilson has also denied exerting pressure.
    Both called to inquire about a widely reported probe into alleged kickbacks in several public construction projects. Several prominent Democrats are reportedly involved.
    The Gonzales briefing memo and others were released as part of a House Judiciary Committee investigation.
    The 2005 memo provides a biography of Iglesias, a demographic breakdown of New Mexico and a list of significant pending cases. Gonzales was attending a conference in New Mexico on border issues but had to leave because of terrorist bombings in London. He returned in the summer of 2006.
    Cases listed as "significant" include:
  • A firearm case that resulted in a 30-year prison sentence for a felon possessing a gun during a robbery. The memo doesn't mention similar cases the U.S. Attorney's office declined to prosecute.
  • An investigation into an immigrant smuggling organization that included federal wiretaps that resulted in a 30-month sentence for the ringleader and even less time for his co-defendants.
  • A federal tax evasion case involving attorneys and accountants in which no one so far has received any jail time.
  • A fraud and conspiracy case involving Los Alamos National Laboratory that resulted in sentences of six months and one year for the two defendants.
  • An anti-heroin initiative in the Española area that began in the late 1990s under then-U.S. Attorney John Kelly and was continuing under Iglesias.
        The memo doesn't mention a couple of cases that subjected the office to criticism.
        An Arizona dental hygiene student was charged with two counts of mailing threatening communications after she stuck chewed-up bubble gum on a traffic citation, then mailed it to the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division.
        She was acquitted after a two-day trial, and the judge told jurors they "could sleep well" after their verdict.
        In another case with terrorism overtones, the office prosecuted Roswell counterterrorism school owner David Hudak on charges of possessing unregistered explosive devices and the Arms Export Control Act.
        Hudak, a Canadian citizen, was kept locked up for more than 15 months before his acquittal in late 2003.
        The judge in the case called the actions of the Department of Homeland Security "arbitrary."
    'Sidebarring' senator?
        The 2005 briefing memo was attached to another document dated Jan. 31, 2006, written in response to questions by Domenici about the criminal caseload for federal prosecutors and judges in New Mexico. Domenici had requested a meeting with Gonzales.
        The memo's author raised the issue of whether Iglesias was "sidebarring" his home-state senator to get more resources.
        The memo says Iglesias denied lobbying Domenici for increased resources and told headquarters it was probably federal judges looking to increase the number of judges in Las Cruces who had raised the issue.
        Iglesias said in a telephone interview Friday that he doesn't recall any such conversation with anyone at the Justice Department.
        "I do recall being asked to meet with Senator Domenici at his office, where he offered to help get more white-collar prosecutors," Iglesias said. "I told him I needed more immigration prosecutors, but I didn't seek him out."
        In subsequent developments, a spokesman for President Bush mentioned the mixed results in the federal prosecution last year of former state Treasurer Robert Vigil.
        The first attempt ended in a mistrial; he was convicted of one attempted count of extortion and acquitted of 22 other counts in a second trial.
        Iglesias defended the prosecution, pointing out that Vigil and other defendants who entered guilty pleas are going to prison.
    Following the rules
        Other memos released by the committee show Iglesias wasn't especially controversial with headquarters in Washington. He was following guidelines on immigration, narcotics and Indian reservation cases— unlike prosecutors in other jurisdictions.
        The 2005 memo also notes that Iglesias was pushing Department of Justice initiatives in crime prevention.
        Iglesias said Friday that at no point was he given a heads-up he was in trouble.
        "That's one of the reasons the firing came as such a surprise," he said. "I had never heard anything negative from Washington."
        "There were no policy disagreements between me and Main Justice," Iglesias said. "I avoided sidebarring Senator Domenici because I knew it would upset people at the Justice Department."
    'Lack of leadership'
        But the memo provided to Gonzales gives only partial insight into how the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico operated under Iglesias.
        Some insiders said they considered the office "risk averse"; in other words, extremely cautious about taking on high- visibility criminal cases.
        A letter addressed to Gonzales was being circulated among some federal prosecutors here last week. Some had signed it but were undecided whether to send it because of speculation Gonzales might lose his job. Others didn't share the views expressed.
        The letter address the recent controversy, describing Iglesias as an absentee boss who was more interested in travel than in running the office.
        It said he "abdicated his responsibility as United States Attorney, turning over virtually every important decision to his subordinates."
        The letter also said that Iglesias' "lack of leadership" resulted in a decline in the quality of work produced by his office and that the reputation of the office had suffered during his tenure.
        It further took him to task for his admission that he didn't report the telephone calls and only went public after he felt betrayed.
        "Disclosure of wrongdoing is not situational, nor does it depend on loyalty," the letter said. "For Mr. Iglesias to state that he would have been happy to not disclose what he now claims was inappropriate and threatening behavior in exchange for keeping his federal job is appalling."
        Iglesias said Friday that he was unaware the letter was being circulated but that in an office with almost 70 attorneys there are bound to be some who are "disgruntled."
        "It would have been nice if they brought their concerns to me before I was fired," he said. "At no time did anyone bring anything like this to my attention."
        The letter also criticized Iglesias' comments that he "felt violated" by a telephone call from Domenici. They said that phrase was only appropriate for victims of violent or sexual crimes.
        "They weren't the ones on the telephone," Iglesias said. "They wouldn't know how I felt."
    U.S. Attorney caseload
        A statistical breakdown of cases handled by the U.S. Attorney's office under David Iglesias provides a snapshot into the demands on his office.
        The number of immigration defendants increased from 2,146 in 2001 to 3,825 in 2006. In December, more than 60 percent of caseloads were immigration offenses.
        Prosecutors say these seldom result in trials and are processed on a "fast track" system that results in the illegal immigrants receiving sentences of time served and an order for deportation.
        Illegal aliens who have multiple offenses seldom go to trial because they face less jail time if they plead guilty.
        Statistics show the number of other criminal cases didn't increase. The number of defendants charged in all other criminal categories remained about the same, about 2,400 defendants in 2001 and 2006.