Richardson withdraws Obama Cabinet nomination over New Mexico probe

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his name as the nominee for commerce secretary because of a federal grand jury investigation into allegations a company tied political donations to state contracts, NBC’s Andrew Mitchell reported Sunday afternoon. “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 statement first reported by Mitchell. “But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process.”

Federal investigators have been probing whether a billion dollar contract awarded to a California company, CDR Financial Inc., was linked to big contributions to political action committees Richardson has formed, our sister site, The New Mexico Independent, reports.

A statement from President-elect Barack Obama said the president accepted Richardson’s decision “with deep regret.”

Richardson’s withdrawal leaves Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar as the highest-ranking Hispanic official heading to the new administration’s Cabinet. Salazar faces confirmation hearings to head the Department of the Interior beginning Jan. 15. His office has said he intends to remain in the Senate until confirmed. On Saturday, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter announced Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet is his choice to fill the Senate vacancy created by Salazar’s anticipated resignation.

“There are too many unanswered questions and while he thinks the results of the grand jury will turn out in his favor, he doesn’t want to distract attention from the administration,” a “source close to Richardson” told Politico on Sunday. A Senate aide cited “nervousness” in the Senate at large and specifically on the committee set to hold Richardson’s confirmation hearings, Politico reported.

Beyond issuing a statement nixing his nomination Sunday afternoon, Richardson hasn’t commented on the investigation and couldn’t be reached for comment on his withdrawal, The New Mexico Independent said.

Richardson intends to remain as governor of New Mexico, putting a stop to transition plans under way by Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who would have become the state’s first woman governor.

Here are the full statements issued Sunday by Obama and Richardson:

STATEMENT OF PRESIDENT ELECT BARACK OBAMA

It is with deep regret that I accept Governor Bill Richardson’s decision to withdraw his name for nomination as the next Secretary of Commerce. Governor Richardson is an outstanding public servant and would have brought to the job of Commerce Secretary and our economic team great insights accumulated through an extraordinary career in federal and state office. It is a measure of his willingness to put the nation first that he has removed himself as a candidate for the Cabinet in order to avoid any delay in filling this important economic post at this critical time. 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

STATEMENT OF GOVERNOR BILL RICHARDSON

For nearly three decades, I have been honored to serve my state and our nation in Congress, at the U.N., as Secretary of Energy and as governor. So when the President-elect asked me to serve as Secretary of Commerce, I felt a duty to answer the call. I felt that duty particularly because America is facing such extraordinary economic challenges. The Department of Commerce must play an important role in solving them by helping to grow the new jobs and businesses America so badly needs.

It is also because of that sense of urgency about the work of the Commerce Department that I have asked the President-elect not to move forward with my nomination at this time. I do so with great sorrow. But a pending investigation of a company that has done business with New Mexico state government promises to extend for several weeks or, perhaps, even months.

Let me say unequivocally that I and my Administration have acted properly in all matters and that this investigation will bear out that fact. But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process. Given the gravity of the economic situation the nation is facing, I could not in good conscience ask the President-elect and his Administration to delay for one day the important work that needs to be done.

So, for now, I will remain in the job I love, Governor of New Mexico, and will continue to work every day, with Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, to make a positive difference in the lives of New Mexicans. I believe she will be a terrific governor in the future. 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.

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