Ever since Stephanie Villafuerte removed herself from the U.S. Attorney sweepstakes via an angry letter in which she expressed frustration about "a needless and extraneous political fight" that has "completely overshadowed the deliberative and independent assessment of my qualifications for this important office," observers have speculated about the conversations between Democratic heavyweights that may have immediately preceded the announcement.
According to Alan Salazar, an aide to Senator Mark Udall, among Villafuerte's most prominent and powerful backers, much of that guesswork has simply been wrong.
"The notion that we got behind closed doors and pushed her out is total bullshit," Salazar says. "It didn't happen. In fact, it was just the opposite."
According to Salazar, the senator's Colorado-based senior policy and political adviser, Udall spoke this past Saturday morning with Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the senate judiciary committee, which was charged with considering Villafuerte's nomination. Sessions had earlier sent a letter to committee chair Patrick Leahy asking that consideration of her nomination be delayed because he considered Villafuerte's record to be "incomplete" as it applied to a controversy involving the 2006 gubernatorial campaign and former ICE agent Cory Voorhis.
"Mark felt an obligation to talk to Senator Sessions to see if this delay was about stopping the confirmation," Salazar says. "He was thinking, 'How do we fix this? How can we have Stephanie answer any and all questions so the confirmation process can go forward?'"
Salazar, who spoke with Udall afterward, says his boss characterized the chat as "friendly, warm and respectful. Senator Sessions believed the letter Stephanie sent us" regarding questions about the use of a restricted database -- read it here -- "was useful, but it would be desirable to have her go under oath for one more FBI interview to reconcile the record of what she remembered from 2006. And Mark's reaction was, 'Fine. That makes sense to me.'"
As for the prospect of what Salazar calls "a bigger or broader hearing" during which Villafuerte would have answered this questions in a public setting, that was never in the cards.
"I've heard [Colorado GOP head and persistent Villafuerte critic] Dick Wadhams talk about this, and Dick should know better," Salazar maintains. "In the history of U.S. Attorney nominations, there's never been such a thing as a regular hearing like we watch on C-SPAN. It isn't that type of process, and it wouldn't have happened in this case. What there would have been was maybe a phone interview with Senator Sessions or something like that."
Udall came away from his Sessions chat "with the impression that there was a path forward for the nomination," Salazar goes on. "His instructions to me were, 'Let's let Stephanie know that if she wants to move forward with this, we're fully behind it. We think the process deserves a bipartisan review of the record."
Meanwhile, however, political pressure on Villafuerte was growing in Colorado -- and she was frustrated by her inability to answer her critics.
"Stephanie knew there were questions, and she wanted a forum to answer them, and Mark wanted her to answer them. But she wasn't allowed to," Salazar notes. "I've heard [KHOW talk-show host] Peter Boyles talk about a gag order on Stephanie. But all nominees for U.S. Attorney are told they can't talk to the press. It wasn't a special case for Stephanie. They do that for all of them.
"I know some people believe there was a cooked-up political scheme to get her nomination rushed through, and that wasn't the case at all. We were fully aware of the bipartisan challenge. Senator Udall was fully aware of it and Stephanie was fully aware of it. Other issues were involved: questions about Homeland Security and Cory Voorhis and ICE -- a whole pile of stuff. So we wanted a bipartisan process, so Republicans could be comfortable that their questions would be asked and answered."
Indeed, Salazar says the Udall crew argued for such an approach months ago, but ran up against institutional intractability.
"I've learned a lot about the process of confirming U.S. Attorneys in the last couple of months, and I'd say my frustration level as a staff person for Mark Udall is a bipartisan frustration," Salazar points out. "The staff on the judiciary committee, in my view, was reluctant to handle this confirmation in any kind of new or unique way. We wanted to go forward with a bipartisan inquiry right from the start. Stephanie was fine with it, everyone in Colorado was fine with it -- but the committee staff hadn't really seen that animal before, and they didn't want us to push it.
"I don't blame anyone for this," Salazar continues. "The in-box in Washington, D.C., is very heavy. But Mark was very clear: 'There are questions here, and we ought to get them answered -- Stephanie ought to answer them.'"
Villafuerte attempted to do so during an interview with Udall and in the aforementioned letter to him, which he made public after getting the go-ahead to do so from the judiciary committee. And afterward, Salazar says, "he came to the conclusion that Stephanie shouldn't be denied confirmation because of a memory lapse with the Denver DA's Office on an issue that, according to Judge Kane [that's John Kane, who heard a case against Voorhis in U.S. District Court], she was able to make an inquiry about in the first place. Other senators on the committee might have thought, 'I can't go with that,' and that would have been totally understandable. But Mark didn't feel this was an issue that should prevent her from having a fair confirmation process."
Nonetheless, Villafuerte came to the conclusion that she should withdraw -- and Salazar stresses that the choice was her own:
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"It is not accurate to suggest that Senate Udall and Governor Ritter got together over the weekend and decided, 'This is a political liability,'" he says. "My impression, after talking with her at great length, was that what was happening was not only personally painful to her, but potentially damaging to the office. Even if she was confirmed, she said, 'I still think it would be difficult to serve effectively.' And so, she made the decision she did."
This isn't the only misconception Salazar would like to correct. He says Udall also regrets that he gave the wrong impression to KHOW's Boyles about his examination of certain material compiled about Villafuerte.
When Boyles asked Udall during a phone conversation if he'd seen FBI background information on Villafuerte, the senator had said "no," thinking the host was referring to restricted research that only judiciary staffers with the proper clearance are allowed to peruse. (Instead, these staffers briefed him on the contents.) Boyles took that to mean Udall hadn't bothered to read summaries that are publicly available and formed the basis of numerous Denver Post articles about Villafuerte. Salazar emphasizes that Udall has read all of those, despite accidentally giving Boyles a different impression.
Salazar adds that Udall is committed to supporting an investigation into the way Voorhis was treated: "Mark feels a responsibility to deal with this. It's in our backyard." Moreover, he'd like this process to be conducted in a spirit of openness and transparency -- just as he wanted the now-aborted Villafuerte nomination to be handled.