WASHINGTON - New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici acknowledged Sunday that he called a federal prosecutor to ask about a criminal investigation, but insisted he never pressured nor threatened his state's U.S. attorney.
The prosecutor, David Iglesias, was fired by the Justice Department in December. Iglesias says he believes he was dismissed for resisting pressure from two members of Congress before last year's election to rush indictments in a Democratic kickback investigation.
Ethics experts said Domenici's conduct might have violated Senate rules, which generally bar communications between members of Congress and federal prosecutors about ongoing criminal investigations.
Iglesias, a Republican, has said he would not name the lawmakers unless asked under oath.
A House Judiciary subcommittee subpoenaed the prosecutor last week to appear Tuesday and testify under oath. He also was scheduled to appear before a Senate committee the same day. Domenici refused last week to say whether he had contacted Iglesias, insisting in a brief interview with the Associated Press, "I have no idea what he's talking about."
But in his statement Sunday, the GOP senator said he called Iglesias last year and asked "if he could tell me what was going on in that investigation and give me an idea of what time frame we were looking at.
"It was a very brief conversation, which concluded when I was told that the courthouse investigation would be continuing for a lengthy period," Domenici said in the statement.
Kenneth Gross, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who specializes in congressional ethics rules, said Domenici's phone call to Iglesias could have violated Senate ethics rules if there was an element of pressure or coercion to his inquiry.
"It doesn't sound very good to me," Gross said. "But requests for the status of cases are generally considered permissible."
One of eight
Iglesias is one of eight U.S. attorneys who were fired in December, some without cause, according to the department. Federal prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired for any reason, or none at all.
Congressional Democrats say the firings indicate the Bush administration is using a new part of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act to reward political allies with coveted jobs as U.S. attorneys without having to submit them to Senate confirmation.
This provision, enacted a year ago with the law's reauthorization, removes a time limit by which the Senate must confirm appointees to such jobs. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, however, has said he intends to submit the name of every nominee to vacant U.S. attorney job to the Senate for confirmation.
The House Judiciary subcommittee that subpoenaed Iglesias also issued subpoenas for three other dismissed U.S. attorneys - Carol Lam of California, H.E. "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas and John McKay of Seattle.