Pressure? Who Says Pressure?

March 12, 2007

When I was in the infantry stationed in Germany—a long time ago—I was the battalion adjutant. It was my job to handle correspondence that from time to time included a letter from a congressman. When that happened, all hell broke loose. The commander, usually in some fury, wanted to know what disloyal soldier would complain to his congressman, and then turning to me, would demand to know who would fix the situation. My job was to “get it done” and draft an immediate reply for signature of the commander who would reply to the brigade commander, who would respond to division commander, who would respond to some general in Washington.

This is pressure.

And this is what congress people do. It is what they tell us at election time they have done well. They regularly pressure agencies to aid constituents: pressure on EPA, pressure on the Pentagon, pressure on the VA hospitals. That is one of congress’ main functions.

Now come Representative Heather Wilson and Senator Pete Domenici who both placed calls to US Attorney David Iglesias last fall, before the elections, to enquire about Iglesias’ progress on the prosecution of a prominent New Mexico democrat. They claim that they certainly did not intend any pressure. They were just making an enquiry to inform their interest in general policy questions, trying to keep abreast of developments.

The timing was immediately before a close election in which incumbent Wilson faced the challenge of her life. Democrats had made political capital out of scandals involving republicans in San Diego, Ohio, and Jack Abramoff, who had been very near to the White House. Corruption, therefore, was hurting Republican campaigns everywhere and Wilson was in deep trouble, caught up in the national anger.

At just this time Wilson placed a personal call to Iglesias to see how he was progressing in the prosecution of a prominent New Mexico democrat. It would of course have been very helpful to her if some democratic scandal could break just before the voting. Wilson needed every vote she could get. Then Senator Domenici made a follow-up call.

If, as they now claim, they simply wanted information, why not let staff make the call? Why these personal calls late at night? Why roll out the big guns, if not to exert pressure?

Wilson called Iglesias in a hotel room and, he says, “grilled” him. When he would not discuss a sealed indictment, she sounded disgusted. Two weeks later the big gun, Domenici, followed on: Would there be an indictment “before November?” Iglesias was bound by law not to tell him. The senator responded: “I’m very sorry to hear that” and hung up. No word of “thanks, David,” or “goodbye.”

And yet the senator says that this was not pressure. And the senator is an honorable man.

It does not matter, frankly, that Wilson and Domenici did not think that they were exercising pressure. Iglesias was the prosecutor who had to decide whether he was going to speed up an indictment. He testified that he felt “leaned upon” and that the whole affair made him sick. It may not have been pressure to Wilson and Domenici but it certainly was pressure to him, which means—and here is the ultimate point—that whomever he was investigating might have been indicted for political reasons. Indictments are supposed to be for legal, not political, reasons, and to turn it around is a disgrace to the whole idea of the rule of law.

Iglesias did not, in this case, indict, and a month later he was fired.

Wilson and Domenici are too much the veterans to claim now that they did not know the game and they were innocent of trying to improve Wilson’s chances for reelection. Of course they knew. Calls to his hotel, or to his home, at night, personal calls, using the leverage of long-time friendly connections were absolutely certain to be taken as pressure. Not even we, the voting public, are so naïve as not to see that.

As long as those two and this administration deny that fact, they are going to continue to hear about David Iglesias. They are going to hear from people who greatly value the idea that the law controls the king and the congress, not the other way round. People who have been in power a long time, like Domenici and Wilson, tend to forget that. It is greatly to be hoped that the people—the people who are ultimately the source of this power—will not forget that.