Richardson, 61, who competed unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination, was secretary of energy and U.N. ambassador during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and also the first high-profile Latino named to Obama’s Cabinet.
But a grand jury in New Mexico is currently looking into charges of “pay-to-play” in the awarding of a state contract to a company that contributed to Richardson.
The importance of the inquiry was apparently dismissed when Richardson was first nominated. But it may have taken on more weight in light of the “pay-to-play” allegations involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“It is with deep regret that I accept Governor Bill Richardson’s decision to withdraw his name for nomination as the next Secretary of Commerce,” the president-elect said in a statement released early this afternoon. “Governor Richardson is an outstanding public servant and would have brought to the job of Commerce Secretary and our economic team great insights accumulated through an extraordinary career in federal and state office.
“It is a measure of his willingness to put the nation first that he has removed himself as a candidate for the Cabinet in order to avoid any delay in filling this important economic post at this critical time.”
Obama added that he would “move quickly to fill the void left by Governor Richardson’s decision.”
Richardson said in a statement that: “Let me say unequivocally that I and my Administration have acted properly in all matters and that this investigation will bear out that fact. But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process. 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.”
In the statement, first obtained by MSNBC and later released by the presidential transition office, he added: “I appreciate the confidence President-elect Obama has shown in me, and value our friendship and working partnership. I told him that I am eager to serve in the future in any way he deems useful. And like all Americans, I pray for his success and the success of our beloved country.”
The decision is the first serious political hit for one of Obama’s Cabinet nominees and comes just as confirmation hearings begin next week.
Richardson said he would remain governor of New Mexico “for now.”