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Does New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's invitation to the Obamas' first White House State Dinner signal he's back in the president's good graces?
The President and First Lady Michelle Obama's Tuesday night dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is "the most sought-after invitation in Washington."
Scoring two of the hottest tickets in the country -- one for himself and one for wife Barbara -- Richardson has set New Mexico political circles abuzz with fresh speculation about his future. Richardson was persona non grata with the administration from January through late summer, when a federal grand jury in Albuquerque ended its investigation and announced that Richardson and his staffers would not face criminal indictment on corruption charges.
As one of only 400 invitees to the most elite social event of the new administration, Richardson is now being welcomed back into the Obama tent, literally, (the party is being held in a giant tent on the White House grounds) , prompting speculation that he will soon receive a federal appointment, perhaps an ambassadorship.
After losing in the Democratic presidential primaries to Obama, Richardson was short-listed as a vice presidential running mate. Passed over for that, he then expected to be named secretary of State and told friends Obama had promised him the position to show his gratitude for Richardson helping him win the Iowa caucuses and, especially, for endorsing Obama over Hillary Clinton. In January, he gamely accepted the consolation prize of secretary of Commerce. But before Senate confirmation hearings could begin, and amid revelations that federal prosecutors were investigating a pay-to-play scheme involving a financial company and Richardson's political action committee, he withdrew his nomination. At that time, President-elect Obama left open the possibility that Richardson would one day be a part of his administration.
The investigation began in 2008 and focused on lucrative bond deals involving a $1.6-billion state transportation program that went to a Richardson donor, and was part of a larger national investigation of bid rigging in the municipal-bond market. The federal grand jury subpoenaed correspondence and political contribution records from Richardson's office dating back to 2002. At the heart of the investigation were charges that a California firm paid contributions into Richardson's political coffers in exchange for state contracts. The probe expanded into kickbacks thought to have been paid to the bond underwriters that had submitted questionable "low" bids for their services.
Rumors swirling in New Mexico suggest that he's already been offered a top position with the State Department -- a coup that required mending fences with Hillary Clinton. The Clinton camp had called Richardson a "judas" for his betrayal of Clinton in endorsing Obama. Conveniently, Richardson and former President Bill Clinton had the opportunity this past weekend to glad-hand at the massive funeral of legendary former New Mexico Gov. Bruce King.
Whether the fact that Richardson was invited to a party for Singh has any further significance is anyone's guess. But Richardson insiders say the deal has been clinched -- he's eager to leave New Mexico and its pesky $650-million budget deficit -- and Tuesday's State Dinner will be his coming-out party.
As for the party itself, with only 400 guests, Richardson should have the opportunity to hobnob with Attorney General Eric Holder, whose Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department made the decision not to pursue indictments against Richardson and former high-ranking members of his administration. "The decision not to pursue indictments was made by top Justice Department officials, according to a person familiar with the investigation, who asked not to be identified because federal officials had not disclosed results of the probe," Barry Massey of the Associated Press reported on Aug. 27. "It's over. There's nothing. It was killed in Washington."
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