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Week of 7.27.07

Web-Extended Interview: David Iglesias

David Iglesias David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney of New Mexico, talks to NOW about the pressure he says he received from the Justice Department to engage in "unlawful activities," his resistance, and why he believes it cost him his job. This is a longer version of the interview that appeared in the broadcast.

NOW: As the U.S. Attorney of New Mexico you were asked to investigate and prosecute instances of voter fraud. What was the nature of this alleged voter fraud?

DAVID IGLESIAS (DI): I was aware that the Justice Department was interested in having U.S. attorneys investigate and prosecute voter fraud going back to 2002. In New Mexico, I wasn't really aware of that being a potential large scale issue until the summer of 2004. So I set up a taskforce in September 2004 to investigate. I made it state, local and federal law enforcement, and I had made sure that the FBI was involved, and that the Justice Department, public integrity section in Washington was involved. I made sure that there were both Democrat and Republican officials as part of this voter fraud effort because I wanted to allay the fears of New Mexicans that this was some kind of partisan witch hunt.

NOW: And did you find prosecutable cases?

DI: No. We looked at well over 100 cases ... Upon reviewing the evidence and looking at the FBI reports, and actually talking to the FBI agent in charge of this, I concluded, as did the public integrity section at main Justice [Department] and at the local FBI office, that we didn't have any prosecutable cases.

NOW: Clearly, voter fraud is a crime. When do efforts to ferret out those few offenders cross the line into something more inappropriate where you are engaging in an effort to strike legitimate voters from the rolls?

DI: Are you putting pressure on the U.S. Attorneys to try to file indictments immediately before an election? If so, that is inappropriate. In fact, there's a longstanding policy in the Justice Department to not do that. And it appears, in some districts, there was pressure put on us to engage in unlawful activities. And that is not what the Justice Department stands for.

NOW: One press account described it as, "A misuse of power of the Department of Justice in the service of the Republican Party." Do you agree?

DI: I think that handsomely covers the issue, yet.

NOW: You said the Justice Department made it clear that if the U.S. Attorneys believed there was voter fraud than you needed to investigate and prosecute it. How did they make that clear?

"... there was pressure put on us to engage in unlawful activities."
DI: This refers to emails that we received with memoranda attached to them in the fall of 2002, 2004 and then again in 2006. [They] admonished U.S. Attorneys to work closely with election officials to offer assistance and investigate and prosecute what appeared to be voter fraud cases.

NOW: Was there any explanation ever given as to why there was this interest?

DI: No, there was no explanation. I had assumed that was the historic practice of the Justice Department. But I subsequently learned that this administration has made it a priority.

NOW: So you're saying prosecuting cases of voter fraud is not something that traditionally has been high on the list of priorities for U.S. attorneys in New Mexico or elsewhere in the country?

DI: That's correct. You have to understand there are approximately 4,000 federal criminal laws and we're tasked to enforce them all ... it's impossible to enforce every possible law. So every administration has to come up with a list of priorities and this was a priority every two years during the election cycle for the Bush Administration.

NOW: It wasn't only officials at the Department of Justice who were expressing an interest in pursuing such cases. You were getting requests from other individuals, correct?

DI: That's correct. In fact, there was a Republican attorney, Pat Rogers, who was a prominent local attorney who tried to pressure me to come up with cases. He would send emails to my assistant, who I had tasked with running this election fraud taskforce ... And I had lunch with Mr. Rogers last fall and he expressed his concern about what he believed to be this systemic, ongoing election fraud. I did not know at the time that he belonged to an organization called the American Center for Voting Rights. He did not disclose to me that he was representing any other interest. And I've also found out that the Republican Party was very interested in stamping out what it believed to be instances of voter fraud.

NOW: The State Republican Party or the National Republican Party?

DI: Both. But who contacted me or some of my assistants was the State Republican Party.

NOW: What interest would they have in seeing you pursue cases of voter fraud?

DI: If they believe there to be prosecutable cases, it obviously sends a strong message. You don't violate federal criminal laws. But I do understand there are some allegations that, in battleground states such as New Mexico, prosecuting even a few cases sends a very strong message and could actually result in suppressing minority voting. It was never made that blunt. It was never that clearly presented to me. And a lot of this I'm reconstructing since leaving office on March 1 [2007].

NOW: What was the nature of the allegations that Rogers and other state GOP officials that you heard from or had contact with?

DI: They singled out ACORN [Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now] as an entity that they thought was engaging in this systemic election fraud. Specifically, they believed there to be a plan to register individuals who were not legally entitled to vote. Under-aged people, people who perhaps were felons, people who perhaps were not American citizens.

But it was generally that there were people voting who did not have the legal right to vote. And that may skew the result. And I believe this to be as a direct result of Al Gore's razor thin victory over George Bush in 2000.

NOW: Remind us of what happened in the 2000 election in your state?

DI: Al Gore won New Mexico by a very small margin. If memory serves me, it was approximately 344 votes. It was the smallest margin of victory of any of the 50 states. I distinctly recall hearing among Republican Party activists, there was a belief that George Bush actually won the 2000 election [in New Mexico]. And that somehow Gore stole the election. So I think there was this belief that let's not let this happen again. That's what I believe to be the genesis of them attempting to put pressure on me to find prosecutable cases.

NOW: In one press account you're quoted as characterizing Mr. Rogers' interest in this issue as "obsessive."

"There appears to be a growing body of evidence that suggests that there's voter suppression going on throughout the country."
DI: Yes. I was aware of grumbling within the State Republican Party. I had friends of mine who were attorneys. One was a former federal prosecutor himself and he would tell me during the course of early 2005 through mid-2006 ... "The Republicans are still upset with you. They still expect you to prosecute cases."

So I knew there was this belief that was I intentionally not prosecuting prosecutable cases. And I knew Rogers, as a prominent Republican, who had actually represented the State Republican Party in some civil litigation related to the voter ID issue ... I knew he was interested in the issue. And then I was also aware of the emails and phone calls he had been leaving with my assistant, who I had tasked with prosecuting this. So I knew there was a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction of me not prosecuting any cases.

What I believed, however, was consistent with historic practice—that the Justice Department would insulate me from any partisan political pressure. As it turns out, they didn't do that. And that was one of the bases for forcing my resignation.

NOW: Whether it was face-to-face conversations with people like Mr. Rogers or the buzz out there about you from your critics, did any of these conversations or any of these criticisms ever make you feel uncomfortable or pressured?

DI: That's a hard question to answer. It made me angry because I knew what we were doing. And I kept asking myself, "How can they possibly criticize me when they don't know the evidence. They've not looked at the evidence. They've not looked at the FBI reports. I have." Why would they think that a Bush appointee—who had run for public office—I had ran for state attorney general —would intentionally not prosecute a righteous case? That the one thing that I never understood. But I think in their zeal and their obsession for getting anything indicted, they let their theories get in the way of the facts and get in the way of the evidence, which they only knew a very small portion of.

NOW: In retrospect, do you believe they were rightly motivated or do you believe they were motivated by partisan politics?

DI: They were clearly partisan. I can't reach into their minds and tell you what they were thinking but I am very disturbed to read accounts of what appears to be "voter caging" in Arkansas and other parts of the country. There appears to be a growing body of evidence that suggests that there's voter suppression going on throughout the country. I'm not sure if that happened in New Mexico. All I know is there was an attempted pressure put on me by local Republicans to indict voter fraud cases. I resisted that. I thought I was going to be protected by the Bush Justice Department and I was wrong in that assumption.

NOW: Did any state Republicans complain to the White House about you?

DI: They did ... I believe they spoke to Karl Rove. I know that Senator Pete Domenici called and complained to President Bush about my alleged lack of zealousness in voter fraud issues. But I didn't know any of this until after I left office. The hearings have resulted in thousands of pages of documents and emails and what not. And I've been able to find out what was going on behind my back.

NOW: Why do you think you were fired from your position?

DI: I've maintained from day one for illicit, partisan political reasons. Specifically not coming up with voter fraud cases, number one. And number two not rushing forward indictments involving prominent Democrats during the election cycle. And thirdly, and this is a possible, since the evidence, it hasn't rolled out yet. But my reserve military duty being gone from the office a lot, I was called an absentee landlord. I believe it's a combination of those three reasons.

NOW: How would you characterize the act of enlisting a U.S. attorney in activities that will benefit a political party at the polls?

DI: It's reprehensible. It's unethical. It's unlawful. It very well may be criminal ... I know it's a marked departure from prior administrations, both Republican and Democrat, who understood that U.S. attorneys, as chief federal law enforcement officials, have to stay out of politics. And that's consistent with what Former Attorney General John Ashcroft told me in the summer of 2001. When he said, "Politics cannot enter into your decision making as a US attorney."

NOW: Where do you believe it went off the rails?

"That's why there has been such a circling of the wagons around Karl Rove and Harriet Miers and Sarah Taylor. I believe there to be incriminating, possibly criminally incriminating evidence contained in those e-mails and other memoranda."
DI: Once Alberto Gonzales took over from Ashcroft, I don't think he ever fully understood that his role as the Attorney General was for the United States of America, that his client was the American public. It wasn't serving the needs of the President. I think that's where the train left the rails.

NOW: Do you think the problems surrounding the U.S. attorneys' firings, as well as what we're learning about some of these voter suppression efforts has tainted the party?

DI: It's tainted the party and it's tainted the Justice Department, which is a real shame. It's a tragedy because, for many years, the only agency that really had a standing as the untouchable agency from partisan politics was the Justice Department. And unfortunately, what's happened over the passed couple of years has tarred it with a very, very ugly brush ... It's a serious problem. The American people have the right to believe that "prosecutive" decisions are made on the basis of evidence alone. And right now, that's called into question.

Every president has the right to set their priorities. But they have to stay within the rules. I mean, this entire scandal in one sense is about the rule of law. And this sordid affair was an attempt to use the power of the Justice Department in an unethical and unlawful way.

NOW: Trying to use the office of a U.S. Attorney for partisan political purposes is unethical. But you're saying it is actually illegal?

DI: Right. That's why there has been such a circling of the wagons around Karl Rove and Harriet Miers and Sarah Taylor. I believe there to be incriminating, possibly criminally incriminating evidence contained in those e-mails and other memoranda. That's why the White House doesn't want to produce it to Congress.

Web Extra: Listen to our interview with Bud Cummins, another fired U.S. attorney.