May 27, 2008—Though virtually unknown outside the Albuquerque area, Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White is betting that his conservative credentials and close ties to the White House will help Republicans retain the hotly contested congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Heather Wilson.
Wilson, in turn, is campaigning hard for the Senate seat that Republican Pete Domenici has held for 36 years in a race that could determine whether Democrats expand their narrow control of the U.S. Senate.
But all three of these Republicans – Domenici, Wilson and White – have something else in common: They all were implicated in the firing of New Mexico’s U.S. Attorney David Iglesias as part of the White House-driven federal prosecutor purge in 2006.
Wilson is currently the subject of a preliminary House Ethics probe related to a phone call she placed to Iglesias just a few weeks before the 2006 midterm elections, inquiring about the status of an indictment against a prominent Democrat in the state.
Domenici was the subject of a similar probe in the Senate over a call he made to Iglesias about the timing of indictments, a call that the Senate Ethics Committee said created an “appearance of impropriety” in a formal admonishment of the six-term senator.
Sheriff White also appears to have been pushing Iglesias to crack down on Democratic-backed voter registration drives and then took his complaints about Iglesias’s lack of aggressiveness to Washington.
In a little-noticed article in the Albuquerque Journal at the height of the U.S. Attorney scandal, White said he was upset with Iglesias’s inaction against Democratic-back voter registration drives and other criminal issues.
White, who was New Mexico chairman of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, confirmed that in spring 2006, he took his “complaints directly to the Department of Justice where he met with Attorney General Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson and others, the Albuquerque Journal reported on April 15, 2007.
Sampson was chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and helped create the list of U.S. attorneys selected for dismissal, prosecutors who in Sampson’s phrase were not “loyal Bushies.”
According to interviews with several law enforcement officials in Bernalillo County and a review of documents, White traveled to Washington with two other Republican operatives in 2006 to complain to the Justice Department that Iglesias was balking at bringing criminal charges against what they called rampant voter fraud – and that he should be fired.
Law enforcement officials said White was accompanied by Mickey Barnett, a Republican lobbyist, and Pat Rogers, a Republican attorney, both of whom are based in New Mexico.
Rogers was affiliated with the American Center for Voting Rights, a now defunct non-profit organization that sought to defend voter rights and increase public confidence in the fairness and outcome of elections.
However, it has since emerged that the organization played a major role in suppressing the votes of people who intended to cast ballots for Democrats in various states.
Rogers is also the former chief counsel to the New Mexico Republican Party, and has been recommended by Domenici to replace Iglesias as U.S. Attorney for New Mexico.
Barnett, Rogers and White met with Monica Goodling, the Justice Department’s White House liaison who resigned last year for the role she played in the unusual firing of nine U.S. Attorneys in the middle of a President’s term.
Last May, House Democrats released a transcript of an interview between congressional investigators and senior Justice Department official Matthew Friedrich. He said that over breakfast in November 2006, Rogers and Barnett expressed frustration with Iglesias's refusal to pursue voter fraud cases and that they had spoken to Karl Rove and Domenici about getting Iglesias fired.
"I remember them repeating basically what they had said before in terms of unhappiness with Dave Iglesias and the fact that this case hadn't gone anyplace," said Friedrich, who last week was named to head the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
"It was clear to me that they did not want him to be the U.S. Attorney. And they mentioned that they had essentially . . . they were sort of working towards that."
Iglesias also had been hearing rumors in New Mexico political circles that White was the “third man” who personally complained to Justice Department officials that he was not pursuing voter fraud cases aggressively enough.
“I was advised by Republican insiders that Darren viewed me as competition for future elected office,” Iglesias said in an interview.
“So it was a slick move on his part to try to get me removed for ‘performance’ knowing that that stigma would diminish my future electability. The irony is that he could have called me and asked if I was considering running for Heather Wilson's seat. I would have said no.”
Iglesias said White also pressed him to prosecute voter fraud cases during the 2004 election. In the months before the general election, Iglesias said White showed up at the county clerk's office demanding to know if there were any questionable voter registrations on file.
Mary Herrera, the Bernalillo County clerk, told White that there were about 3,000 or so forms that were either incomplete or incorrectly filled out.
Bernalillo County had been the target of a massive grassroots effort by the group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to register voters, which paid off with about 65,000 newly registered voters.
Sheriff White intended to challenge the integrity of some of the names on the voter registration rolls, Iglesias wrote in a new book, In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration.
White seized upon the registration forms as evidence that ACORN submitted fraudulent registration forms. He held a press conference along with other Republican officials in the county to call attention to the matter.
Iglesias said he established an election fraud task force in September 2004 and spent more than two months probing claims of widespread voter fraud in his state.
"After examining the evidence, and in conjunction with the Justice Department Election Crimes Unit and the FBI, I could not find any cases I could prosecute beyond a reasonable doubt," Iglesias said. "Accordingly, I did not authorize any voter fraud related prosecutions."
Iglesias said he views White’s participation in his firing as an inappropriate attempt by a law-enforcement officer to pressure a prosecutor.
“I question his judgment is attempting to remove a U.S. Attorney who did not find any cases worth prosecuting related to voter fraud,” Iglesias said. “That shows a spectacular lack of understanding of how law enforcement works.
“Cops complain all the time that prosecutors don't take their cases, but it's incredibly rare for the cop to seek the removal of the prosecutor. But he was that highly politicized.”
White’s campaign refused to respond to questions about the sheriff’s role in Iglesias’s firing. Contacted at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s station, White declined to comment for this story.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has launched an ad campaign against White that cites his role in Iglesias’s firing.
"A federal prosecutor was fired only after he refused to bend to political pressure Darren White helped orchestrate,” said Yoni Cohen, Western Regional Press Secretary for the DCCC. "If he were in Congress, White would likely be under investigation for violating ethical standards ...
"Senator Domenici is paying the price for listening to Darren White -- he was punished by the Ethics Committee. The people of New Mexico deserve better than another Republican Member of Congress who believes playing politics is more important than playing by the rules and honoring America's system of checks and balances.”
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This story was published on May 28, 2008.