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Rocking the airwaves and sparking a barrage of Internet chatter Sunday, Gov. Bill Richardson bowed out of consideration for U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
Citing the investigation into a California firm's business dealings with the State of New Mexico, which could drag on for months, along with the gravity of the economic situation facing the nation, Richardson said he could not ask President-elect Barack Obama "to delay for one day the important work that needs to be done."
News came to light in December that a federal grand jury was looking into accusations that Richardson’s administration gave lucrative contracts to CDR Financial Products Inc., of Beverly Hills. According to published reports, CDR President David Rubin gave some $100,000 to two political action committees controlled by Richardson in 2003 and 2004 and another $10,000 to his 2005 re-election campaign.
Since August, federal investigators have been specifically examining how CDR obtained two consulting contracts worth some $1.4 million to advise the state on a $1.6 billion bond program to pay for state transportation projects.
Grand jury proceedings began after an FBI probe in which investigators interviewed former and current New Mexico Finance Authority officials and sought documents from the authority about the 2004 contract with the firm.
According to The Associated Press, someone close to the proceedings has said that the grand jury is looking into possible "pay-to-play" dealings between CDR and someone in a position to push the contract through with the state.
CDR came in second in the March 2004 bidding process, losing to a joint venture between Smith Barney and Ryan Labs. The New Mexico Finance Authority then hired CDR to do the two consulting jobs.
In June 2004, the firm gave $75,000 to a political action committee Richardson formed to pay for he and his staff to attend the Democratic National Convention in Boston that year.
Other companies that benefited from the bond sales contributed $55,000, according to The Associated Press.
“Let me say unequivocally that I and my administration have acted properly in all matters and that this investigation will bear out that fact," Richardson said in a news release Sunday. "But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process."
Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties, commented on Richardson's withdrawal during an interview Monday. "I think most of us believed this was going to be a difficult legislative session with the governor leaving in the middle of it and then the lieutenant governor taking over," Wallace said. "Now it's changed completely and Richardson will likely end up staying through the entire session. I would not be surprised if we end up in a special session."
Longtime Democratic Party leader and Los Alamos county councilor Mike Wheeler expressed optimism that Richardson will weather this storm. "I was really sorry to see this happen... and I have no doubt he will be completely vindicated," Wheeler said. "It's understandable why he needs to withdraw... but I'm sure in the future he will have a lot of opportunity for political assignments in the Obama Administration."
Obama left that door open in his statement released Monday. “It is with deep regret that I accept Gov. Bill Richardson’s decision to withdraw his name for nomination as the next Secretary of Commerce," Obama said. "Although we must move quickly to fill the void left by Gov. Richardson’s decision, I look forward to his future service to our country and in my administration.”
Richardson says being New Mexico's governor is the job he loves most and will continue to perform. "I will remain in the job I love...and will continue to work every day, with Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, to make a positive difference in the lives of New Mexicans," he said in his Sunday press release. "I appreciate the confidence President-elect Obama has shown in me, and value our friendship and working partnership. I told him that I am eager to serve in the future in any way he deems useful. And like all Americans, I pray for his success and the success of our beloved country.”
Denish was all set to take over as governor for Richardson's two remaining years. She had put a transition team in place to begin that process before the bad news hit.
Denish has asked the 130 members of her transition team to continue their work of identifying the top issues facing the state and to deliver their findings to her on Jan. 15. She plans to present those findings to Richardson.
Denish was in Washington, D.C. Sunday for the swearing in ceremony of New Mexico's congressional delegation and to strategize with them on economic stimulus opportunities for New Mexico, according to her office.
Richardson and Denish talked early Sunday about his decision and she made the following statement:
"Gov. Richardson postponed taking a position in the administration to ensure that President Obama and the American people face no delays in getting to work to fix our ailing economy, and the President-elect said he looks forward to Gov. Richardson joining his administration in the days ahead. In the meantime, Gov. Richardson and I will work together, as we have over the last six years, to tackle challenges at home, to craft a workable budget with the legislature and to strengthen our economy to make sure that every New Mexico family has the opportunity to succeed."
While she has not been mentioned in the case, Denish has received two contributions from Rubin totaling $10,000, according to the campaign contribution tracking site, www.followthemoney.org.
Richardson's withdrawal was the first disruption of Obama's Cabinet process and the second "pay-to-play" investigation to touch Obama's transition process. The president-elect has remained outside both the case of arrested Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the New Mexico case.