Weeks before President-elect Barack Obama chose New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to head the Commerce Department, a small group of volunteers with ethics, tax and investigative expertise -- most of them lawyers -- scoured his background looking for embarrassing facts or political problems.
But the team underestimated a potential time bomb -- a grand jury investigation that had been focusing on Richardson's gubernatorial office. The investigation had been widely reported, but Richardson seemed convinced that the probe, which involved a campaign donor, was not likely to thwart his Senate confirmation.
Yesterday, however, Richardson abruptly withdrew from consideration. In the preceding weeks, the extent to which he had underestimated the seriousness of the FBI investigation became obvious both to Obama's vetting team and to Richardson's own staff.
Sources within the transition and the Justice Department said that Richardson had played down the importance of the probe and did not reveal that his office and staff could be at risk. The seriousness of the matter became apparent after the FBI began its own background check on Dec. 2. But Richardson's longtime aides defended his disclosures, noting that subjects under examination by a grand jury are rarely aware of its secret deliberations.
"This was out there, and he told them," said a senior Richardson aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. "I feel that they just missed the boat on it. The FBI or the campaign or something. I don't think it's fair that this is being portrayed as him holding anything back."