SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson held a brief news conference Monday about his decision to withdraw his nomination as U.S. Commerce Secretary but refused to answer questions about a federal investigation into how his political donors landed lucrative transportation contracts.
Richardson read from a prepared statement and answered a few questions but wouldn’t address a grand jury that is looking into possible “pay-to-play” dealings between CDR Financial Products, which won state contracts for $1.48 million.
The Democratic governor said he didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation by commenting. He said he has “faith in the criminal justice process, and we must allow it to run its course.”
Richardson has maintained he would be cleared in a grand jury probe. In deciding to withdraw from the Commerce post, he said the investigation would have likely disrupted a timely nomination to a top economic post.
“While this decision was a difficult one, I think it was the right thing to do,” Richardson said Monday.
He reiterated that he had hoped the CDR probe would have concluded in December “with a clean bill of health for my administration.”
“Yesterday, I was hurting over this decision,” Richardson said. “I lost a Cabinet appointment.”
But he said his attention will be on New Mexico and the upcoming legislative session and encouraged the national picture to focus on people who are losing jobs, savings and their homes in this country.
“That’s the real tragedy. You know, mine is minor compared to that,” Richardson said.
A senior adviser to President-elect Barack Obama said Richardson gave assurances before he was nominated last month he would come out fine in the investigation.
But as the grand jury pursued the case, it became clear that confirmation hearings would be delayed at least six weeks until the investigation was complete, said the adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity about the discussions because they were private.
Aides to both men insisted Richardson made the decision to withdraw and was not pushed out by Obama. But one Democrat involved in discussions over the matter said transition officials became increasingly nervous during the last couple of weeks that the investigation could become an embarrassment to Obama, who ran on a clean government pledge.
In a statement, Obama praised Richardson and said he accepted his withdrawal “with deep regret.”
“It is a measure of his willingness to put the nation first that he has removed himself as a candidate for the Cabinet to avoid any delay in filling this important economic post at this critical time,” Obama said. “Although we must move quickly to fill the void left by Governor Richardson’s decision, I look forward to his future service to our country and in my administration.”
Richardson ran against Obama in the Democratic presidential primary. He is one of the most prominent Hispanics in the Democratic Party, having served in Congress, and in the Clinton administration as ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary. As governor he has kept up an international profile with a specialty in dealing with rogue nations. Obama also considered him for secretary of state.
The announcement came ahead of Obama’s Monday meetings with congressional leaders on a massive economic recovery bill he wants passed quickly. Obama transition officials said Richardson’s withdrawal would not affect the stimulus plan because the Commerce Department was not heavily involved.
State documents show CDR was paid a total of $1.48 million in 2004 and 2005 for its work on a transportation program.
In a statement issued Sunday night, CDR’s chief executive, David Rubin, described Richardson as “an exceptionally able and dedicated public official, who was highly deserving of the opportunity to hold a cabinet-level position in the new Obama administration.” Rubin also said CDR “adamantly doesn’t practice pay-for-play under any circumstance on any playing field.”
CDR and Rubin have contributed at least $110,000 to three political committees formed by Richardson, according to an AP review of campaign finance records.
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