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Ethics Switch Signals Long Domenici Probe

The Senate Ethics Committee sent its strongest signal yet that it is digging in for a long and serious examination of Sen. Pete Domenici's (R-N.M.) role in the firing of a U.S. attorney.

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) recused himself last night from the investigation into the dismissal of David C. Iglesias as U.S. attorney. Sen Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) will stand in for Salazar for this matter only on the evenly divided six-Senator panel.

A seemingly simple housekeeping maneuver from the outside, the Salazar-Brown switch is highly significant both for the reasons it happened and the rarity of such recusals.

Here at Capitol Briefing we've been reading statements from the Ethics Committee for many years, in the same way Kremlinologists studied the order Politburo members stood at big military parades in Soviet-era Moscow. And from this vantage point, the committee appears to be examining more than merely the facts surrounding Domenici's call to Iglesias to ask about the timing of a highly sensitive probe of Democrats , but also the the motives behind the call.

Salazar recused himself, according to spokesman Cody Wertz, "because of his relationship with [former] New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid." Madrid was the 2006 opponent of Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), who, like Domenici, is accused of calling Iglesias in the weeks before the election to pressure him to bring indictments against local Democrats in a case that might have caused Madrid political embarrassment.

Moreover, Wertz said that the content of the investigation also prompted Salazar's recusal: "He may have knowledge of matters that may be investigated by the committee."

Salazar is a former Colorado attorney general, having overlapped with Madrid in her attorney general service for six years. A simple Google search of "Ken Salazar and Patricia Madrid" produces a number of instances in which the duo worked together as attorneys general on issues such as water rights.

Just as importantly, Attorney General Salazar faced his own accusations that are central to this matter. As the Washington Times reported, Salazar came under fire for not pursuing alleged voter fraud by liberal groups in advance of the 2004 presidential election and his own Senate race against beer magnate Peter Coors.

Iglesias faced similar accusations from New Mexico Republicans both in 2004 and in the run-up to the Wilson-Madrid race. Local Republicans took their complaints to White House political aides, and, as those complaints grew louder, Wilson and Domenici placed calls to Iglesias about a separate case involving Albuquerque Democrats. [For the long backgrounder on that case and the timing of the calls, read my April 1 story in The Post.

So, if the Ethics committee were sticking to the simple fact that prompted the case - was it appropriate for Domenici to call a federal prosecutor and ask about the timing of indictments - it's doubtful Salazar would have needed to recuse himself. However, if the committee is delving deeper into the case and potential motives, Salazar would have found himself reliving much of the issues he personally dealt with two-and-a-half years ago.

As for the frequency of such recusals, they are rare. The most recent publicly acknowledged probe by the committee was an investigation of alleged inappropriate leaks by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) while he served on the Intelligence Committee in 2002. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) stayed on the Ethics committee throughout its examination of Shelby even though he was also the top Republican on Intelligence at the same time, overseeing Intelligence staffers who would have been witnesses for the Ethics probe. Shelby was eventually given a clean bill of ethical health in late 2005.

The last time such an ethics recusal occurred was in January 2002, when Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), then Democratic whip, stepped aside from an investigation against Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).

If that's a forewarning of what's ahead for Domenici, it's not good news. The investigation took more than six months to complete, including multiple under-oath appearances by Torricelli before the Ethics committee behind closed doors. He was eventually "severely admonished" by the committee for taking thousands of dollars worth of TVs, jewelry and other gifts from a donor seeking legislative aide.

Torricelli quit his re-election bid just weeks before the 2002 midterms.

By Paul Kane  |  April 18, 2007; 2:04 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , Senate  
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Very interesting. Nice reasoning on the motives behind the switch. Thanks!

Posted by: Stephen Larson | April 18, 2007 8:33 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Mr. Larson, this is an excellent article.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | April 18, 2007 10:53 PM | Report abuse

Intending no disrespect to Senator Dominici, he has been political toast for a while, along with protoge Madrid.

Dominci could throw everyone a curve by resigning prior to the end of his term. This would place Richardson, the odds-on favorite for his seat (as well as a prime VP candidate) in a problematic situation.

In fact, at this point, I think it is more fun to speculate about what Richardson does under various scenarios. For example, should John Edwards (almost certain to be the "last man standing" in the Democratic Presidential race) ultimately decide to drop out due to his wife's health, then Richardson is the Edwards heir-apparent. He is also a top tier VP candidate if Edwards accepts the nomination. But maybe he would prefer to be in the Senate to VP, which would be understandable.

So many variables, so exhausting!

Posted by: Henly, Tx | April 19, 2007 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Domenici is a tragedy in the classical sense. Although I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat (and a New Mexican by birth), I had a healthy respect for the senator until 2001. During the 1990s, he was an effective budget hawk and helped to bring the budget into surplus.

Then when Bush became president, Domenici was asked to give up his job as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, because budget hawks weren't wanted by the new administration.

I don't know if they bought him off in some fashion, or if he just stepped aside because he was a good soldier. But the current national debt is (IMO) largely due to the fact that Pete D. was no longer standing guard over the budget.

Posted by: Jonathan Epstein | April 19, 2007 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Republican Domenici was a budget hawk because the Republicans opposed Clinton on just about everything, forcing Clinton to negotiate (and veto - and win!); after 2001 perhaps he was "a good soldier", but maybe he just didn't disagree with the budget and wasn't as willing to fight for balance. Just a thought...

Posted by: JDMB | April 19, 2007 7:06 PM | Report abuse

The voter fraud charge is a red herring intended to smear Democratic candidates. The consequences of single instances of the infraction has virtually no effect on election results. On the other hand, voter intimidation - one of the GOPs favorite tactics - is to discourage whole populations of minorities from voting and this does alter election results. Given that minorities tend to vote disporportionately for Democrats.

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