Darren White, the Bernalillo County, New Mexico Sheriff, is virtually unknown outside the residential community of 600,000.
But White is betting that his close ties to the White House, and his staunch conservative credentials will help him win the coveted Congressional seat currently held by Heather Wilson, the New Mexico Republican Congresswoman who is campaigning for Pete Domenici’s soon-to-be vacated seat in the Senate. Domenici, a Republican, announced last year that he would not seek reelection.
Yesterday, President Bush was expected to host a fundraiser for White in Albuquerque where White’s campaign manager has set a goal of raising $300,000... White was the New Mexico chairman of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign.
Yet as White’s Congressional campaign begins to pick up steam questions have resurfaced about the role he played in the late 2006 firing of New Mexico’s former U.S. Attorney, David Iglesias.
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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, but the Senate Ethics Committee declined to launch a formal investigation against the senator instead opting t admonish Domenici in a formal letter for the “appearance of impropriety,” a result of a phone call he too made to Iglesias about the timing of indictments.
In an interview, Iglesias said he had heard rumors for some time in New Mexico political circles that White was the “third man” who lobbied Domenici and personally complained to DOJ officials that he was not pursuing voter fraud cases.
“I was advised by Republican insiders that Darren viewed me as competition for future elected office,” said Iglesias, whose book In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration, was just published. “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 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."
But White, along with Rogers and Barnett, believed the evidence was overwhelming.
According to interviews with several law enforcement officials in Bernalillo County and a review of documents, White traveled to Washington, D.C. with two Republican operatives in 2006 to complain to a Justice Department official that Iglesias refused to pursue criminal charges of rampant voter fraud that allegedly took place prior to the 2006 midterm elections in the state and should be fired.
Law enforcement officials said White traveled to Washington with Mickey Barnett, a Republican lobbyist, and Pat Rogers, a Republican attorney, both of who 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 was tapped by Domenici to replace Iglesias as US Attorney for New Mexico.
Barnett, Rogers, and White met with Monica Goodling, the DOJ’s former White House liaison who resigned last year for the role she played in the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys, all of which appeared to be based on partisan politics.
Last May, House Democrats released a transcript of an interview congressional investigators had with one of [former Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales's senior Justice Department staffers, Matthew Friedrich, in which Friedrich recounted that over breakfast in November 2006, Rogers and Barnett told him they were frustrated about Iglesias's refusal to pursue cases of voter fraud and that they had spoken to Karl Rove and Domenici about having 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," Friedrich said, according to a copy of the interview transcript. "It was clear to me that they did not want him to be the US attorney. And they mentioned that they had essentially . . . they were sort of working towards that."
President Bush tapped Friedrich last week to head the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
Buried in a little known report published in the Albuquerque Journal at the height of the U.S... Attorney scandal is a statement by White confirming that in the Spring of 2006 he took his “complaints [about Iglesias] directly to the Department of Justice where he met with Attorney General Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson and others.” Sampson was the chief of staff to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and widely believed to be responsible, along with input from the White House, for creating the list of U.S. attorneys selected for dismissal.
The Justice Department “loved David (Iglesias)," White told the Albuquerque Journal. "I started in on my complaints and they pulled out a sheet. They told me there couldn't be a problem. David had great numbers."
White’s campaign has 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 launched a campaign against White earlier this month, hoping to educate New Mexico voters about the role the sheriff played in Iglesias’s firing.
"A federal prosecutor was fired only after he refused to bend to political pressure Darren White helped orchestrate. If he were in Congress, White would likely be under investigation for violating ethical standards," said Yoni Cohen, Western Regional Press Secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "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.”
White pressed Iglesias to prosecute voter fraud cases during the 2004 election as well.
In the months prior to 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.
In the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, 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, Iglesias said, intended to challenge the integrity of some of the names on the voter registration rolls. 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.
White seized upon the registration forms as evidence that ACORN submitted fraudulent registration forms and held a press conference along with other Republican officials in the county to call attention to the matter.
But the case was never prosecuted due to a lack of provable evidence.
Iglesias said White’s role in his firing should be scrutinized as the sheriff begins to beef up his campaign for Wilson’s congressional seat.
“I question his judgment is attempting to remove a US 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.”
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