News Column

Gonzales and Iglesias Clash in Attorney Controversy

April 16, 2007

Neil H. Simon

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When the Attorney General paid his first visit to U.S. Attorney David Iglesias in Albuquerque in 2005, Mr. Iglesias took his then-boss to El Pinto. At the old Spanish-style restaurant with their New Mexican meals, the similarities between the two Hispanic attorneys would have been obvious.

In one seat was the longtime counsel to the president, the country's highest appointed Hispanic official, Alberto Gonzales. In the other, Mr. Iglesias, the newly minted top prosecutor for New Mexico, hand-picked by the White House to add diversity to the Republican Party's higher-office talent pool.

"Gonzales was a real inspiration," Mr. Iglesias said about the man who helped shape his job as a U.S. attorney. But Mr. Iglesias now knows his inspiration brought on the sweep of firings that cost him and seven other U.S. attorneys their jobs.

Mr. Gonzales first said the prosecutors were fired for performance reasons, but he later defined "performance" to mean whether attorneys were following administration priorities, particularly in prosecuting election fraud. Mr. Gonzales initially said he was not involved in the dismissals, then recounted that he was in White House meetings about them.

While Mr. Gonzales prepares for a more complete defense at his April 17 congressional testimony, which Republican senators have said could ultimately decide whether he has the political support to survive at the Justice Department, his New Mexico colleague has already seen how fast that support can vanish.

SOUTHWEST ROOTS

Both lawyers are the products of public schools. While Mr. Iglesias was finishing at Santa Fe High School in 1976, Mr. Gonzales was just a few hours north at the Air Force Academy. Mr. Gonzales rarely set a goal he did not meet. As a teen, he sold soft drinks at Rice Stadium and later attended the university. After attending Harvard Law School, he became the first minority partner at Houston's prestigious Vinson and Elkins law firm.

Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Iglesias both began their rise in the early 1990s. In 1992, Mr. Iglesias' successful defense of U.S. Marines in a Guantanamo Bay prisoner assault case became the plotline for the movie "A Few Good Men."

The same year, 37-year-old Alberto Gonzales was named the Texas Young Lawyer of the Year.

Mr. Iglesias took his Navy JAG experience to his home state and the city of Albuquerque, where City Attorney David Campbell needed lawyers to defend a growing number of cases being filed against police officers in the wake of the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles.

"I felt very good about sending him to court with tough cases," Mr. Campbell said. The city attorney liked Iglesias' record of getting charges against military officers reduced. In Albuquerque, that success continued with Mr. Iglesias winning against the odds even getting a favorable verdict in a high-profile excessive force case involving a wheelchair-bound plaintiff alleging police abuse.

While Mr. Iglesias has spent his whole career in public service, Mr. Gonzales began seeing the public sector as a potential platform for success only in the mid-'90s, when a mutual friend brought him into the inner circle of George W. Bush.

When Mr. Bush became governor in 1995, he brought Mr. Gonzales to Austin to be his general counsel. The same year, Mr. Iglesias was finishing up a prestigious White House Fellowship.

RISING STAR

To look at the personal histories of Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Iglesias is to watch the parallel rise of Hispanic Republicans with diverging loyalties. Mr. Gonzales has shown great allegiance to George W. Bush, and the president has returned the favor. Mr. Bush has raised Mr. Gonzales five times, sending the son of Mexican immigrants from San Antonio's hard south side to the Texas Governor's Office, Texas Supreme Court, White House and now the top of the Justice Department.

"He's selfless and soft-spoken," said Tom Phillips, who was Chief Justice when Mr. Gonzales joined the Texas court in 1999. "He's very interested in the end product."

Justice Phillips liked Mr. Gonzales, found him smart and articulate, though the junior judge had little to no experience in appellate law. "I knew that the governor was very fond of him," Justice Phillips said. "But during his time on the court, he and the governor didn't see each other that often."

Mr. Iglesias began receiving similar attention from Republicans in New Mexico. "They were doing a good job of recruiting Hispanic Republicans and cultivating careers, and I thought that's what they had in mind with David," said Ken Zangara, who was the finance chairman for Mr. Iglesias' 1998 bid for state attorney general.

"There was incredible support," Mr. Iglesias remembered. "[Then-Republican Party Chairman John] Dendahl scared off any opposition." Mr. Iglesias lost the general election by just two percentage points, after trailing by 24 points in Labor Day polls.

"There was a time he didn't know an enemy in the Republican Party. I know of no Republican who will stand by him now," Mr. Dendahl said. "He knows he was removed for incompetence and inaction."

Mr. Iglesias, appointed U.S. attorney in 2001, got former New Mexico Treasurer Robert Vigil, a Democrat, convicted of attempted extortion, but lost on 23 other counts connected to a treasurer's office kickback scheme. Republicans grew increasingly impatient with the U.S. Attorney's pace of prosecuting other corruption and election fraud cases around the state.

"The supreme irony is my office prosecuted corruption and that wasn't good enough," Mr. Iglesias said.

With a stack of positive performance reviews calling him a "diverse up-and-comer," "one of our finest," "experienced," and "respected," Mr. Iglesias' fate changed immediately after he declined to announce indictments against Democrats just before the 2006 mid-term elections. Within a month, he became the eighth and final U.S. attorney on the firing list.

Three months after the dismissals, Mr. Gonzales' former Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson regretted it. When asked, under oath, if he would still put Mr. Iglesias on the list, he said, "I would not. I wish that the department hadn't gone down this road at all."

SEPARATE PATHS

Mr. Gonzales' loyalty to President Bush and the Political Affairs Office in the end led to Mr. Iglesias being fired. For Mr. Iglesias, the man who gravitated to public service when he was 15, "The government door is closed shut," he said. He still considers himself a Republican, but "now, I've got no support."

"He's a political appointee to begin with, and if he gets fired for political reasons, that's part of the game. He should be prepared for that." Mr. Zangara said, adding Mr. Iglesias is now making himself too much of a "hot potato" for New Mexico's relatively small legal community.

While Mr. Gonzales goes to Capitol Hill to save his own job this month, Mr. Iglesias, who once aspired to be a congressman or governor, is now looking for private sector work.

He returned recently to that same restaurant amid the cottonwood trees lining Rio Grande. This time it was his own retirement party an event that he says came at least a year earlier than he planned.

And while few New Mexico Republicans are holding any doors open for Mr. Iglesias, his old boss in Albuquerque said he thinks he'll resurface for political leadership.

"Republicans would be foolish to shun someone with such integrity," Mr. Campbell said. "And the Democrats would be foolish not to embrace someone with his experience."

Neil H. Simon is a journalist and news producer in Washington, D.C. He covered New Mexico politics for five years and can be found online at neilhsimon.com.



Source: HispanicBusiness.com (c) 2007. All rights reserved.


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