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N.M. guv's future looks brighter as probe ends

Bill Richardson
Bill Richardson
Craig Fritz, Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. — A dark cloud over Gov. Bill Richardson's political future has lifted after the federal government's decision against indictments in a pay-to-play investigation that prompted the governor to withdraw his nomination as U.S. commerce secretary earlier this year.

Political analysts said the yearlong probe's end could even revive Richardson's chances of finding a place in President Barack Obama's administration in the future. The governor's second term expires at the end of 2010, and he can't seek re-election.

"The cloud over his head has dissipated," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Thursday. "The Land of Enchantment is the land of second chances now for Bill Richardson."

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, called the government's decision, eight months after Richardson withdrew as the commerce nominee, a major vindication for the Democratic governor.

"Whenever something like this happens, when you accept a position and then you withdraw … it gets suspicions up and tongues wagging that there is a lot more there than they're talking about. This vindicates him," Ornstein said.

The Democratic governor and former high-ranking members of his administration won't be criminally charged in an investigation of how lucrative state bond work went to one of the governor's large political donors, according to two people familiar with the case. The decision not to seek indictments was made by Justice Department officials in Washington, they said, speaking on condition they not be identified because prosecutors had not disclosed results of the probe.

A department spokesman declined to comment on the case and whether Attorney General Eric Holder played a role in deciding not to pursue charges.

The agency's silence drew criticism from New Mexico Republican Party chairman Harvey Yates Jr., who said Holder should provide "transparent and honest answers" about who was responsible for the decision to end the investigation without indictments.

A spokesman for Richardson, Gilbert Gallegos, said in a statement Thursday that "while the U.S. Attorney's Office has not notified Gov. Richardson about the completion of its investigation, it appears that no action will be taken as a result of the yearlong inquiry."