WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Cabinet that President-elect Barack Obama picked on a fast track has an unexpected opening, with Bill Richardson, Obama's choice for commerce secretary, withdrawing under pressure of a federal investigation into how his political donors landed a lucrative transportation contract.
Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former diplomat and Clinton administration Cabinet member, insisted he would be cleared in a grand jury probe. But he and Obama said the investigation would have likely disrupted a timely nomination to a top economic post.
"I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process," Richardson said in a statement. "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."
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said he expected a new commerce secretary would be chosen soon but didn't have a timetable. Gibbs denied that those tasked to look into Richardson's background missed something.
Richardson is one of the most prominent Hispanics in the Democratic Party, having served in Congress, and as President Bill Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary. He ran for president last year, but dropped out and threw his support to Obama over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, despite his Clinton ties. Hillary Clinton is now Obama's secretary of state choice.
Even as governor of New Mexico, a job he now intends to keep, Richardson has maintained an international profile with a specialty in dealing with rogue nations. Since he began his career in Congress in the 1980s, he has shown a knack for freelance diplomacy, rushing off to such places as North Korea, Sudan, Cuba and Iraq on unofficial diplomatic missions
Richardson's withdrawal was the first bump in Obama's Cabinet process and the second "pay-to-play" investigation that has touched Obama's transition to the presidency. The president-elect has not been implicated in either the New Mexico case or accusations that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell Obama's former Senate seat.
A senior Obama adviser 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.
Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the governor believed the investigation would be resolved by this time, but decided to withdraw when it became clear it would not.
In a statement, Obama praised Richardson and said he accepted his withdrawal "with deep regret."
Obama meets with congressional leaders Monday about 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.
A person familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press that the grand jury is looking into possible "pay-to-play" dealings between CDR Financial Products and someone in a position to push the contract through the state of New Mexico.
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, said the company "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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