By NICK R. MARTIN
Last year, not long after Diane Humetewa was handpicked to become the next United States attorney for Arizona, she received a letter from the leader of the state Democratic Party.
It was blunt. It asked her to say publicly whether anyone had pressured her to drop an investigation of U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., in exchange for the job.
This story originally ran March 1, 2008 in the East Valley Tribune in Arizona.
The speculation came after the state's previous U.S. attorney, Paul Charlton, was reportedly fired by the Bush administration for opening the investigation in the first place.
Humetewa never responded, though, and the question lingered: Was Renzi still under investigation?
Last week, Humetewa stood at a lectern on the 12th floor of a downtown Phoenix high-rise and put the speculation to rest. She announced she was charging Renzi with 35 counts of federal public corruption.
It was a defining moment for Humetewa, showing she may have found her way through the political fog of the U.S. attorneys scandal, said several observers and former colleagues.
"I'm glad to see that she went ahead and pursued this," said David Waid, who wrote the letter in March 2007 while he was still chairman of the state Democratic Party. He called the indictment "encouraging."
A longtime insider at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, Humetewa has worked in various positions there off and on since 1986.
By all accounts, she has shied away from mixing politics with work. But her connection to one of Arizona's senators also shows she is not politically naive, either.
STINTS IN D.C.
Fred Petti, a former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, first met Humetewa in the early 1990s, when she was a summer clerk there, he said.
Since then, she has earned a reputation as a focused, hardworking lawyer who keeps her head down, he said.
"She's not somebody who's going to seek a lot of limelight. She's not somebody who's going to have a political agenda," said Petti. "She's going to be a prosecutor's prosecutor."
Petti currently represents "a witness," whom he would not name, in the Renzi investigation. It is the latest interaction he has had with Humetewa.
They last dealt with each other in 2005 during another high-profile and politically charged case, that of disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, Petti said.
At the time, he was representing the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, which was one of the lobbyist's former clients, and Humetewa was working for the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which was investigating Abramoff's dealings.
Even then, Petti said, Humetewa was a straightforward lawyer with no dog in the fight.
"She was a real capable and steady hand," he said.
The Justice Department was the agency that later hooked Abramoff on three charges, but the committee's work publicly laid out many of Abramoff's backroom dealings.
The hearings marked the second time Humetewa worked in Washington for the committee. The first time, she spent 2 1/2 years there, fresh out of Arizona State University's law school, advising and helping craft laws.
Both times, Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the committee's chairman, and Humetewa worked closely with him.
In fact, the relationship shows Humetewa is not a complete political outsider.
She has twice given to the senator's presidential campaigns - her only donations on record, according to the Web site OpenSecrets.org - and McCain personally recommended her to the president for the U.S. attorney's job last year.
In a recent written statement, McCain said Humetewa showed a "commitment to justice and incredible work ethic" during her time working for him on the committee. "These qualities will serve her well as the next U.S. Attorney for Arizona," he said in the statement in November, urging his Senate colleagues to confirm her. They did the following month.
Humetewa's most recent donation, a check for $2,000, came in February 2007, the month after McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl recommended her to the president.
The first donation, a $1,000 check, came in 1999 for McCain's 2000 run for the White House. The relationship has led some to speculate that Humetewa might head east if McCain, his party's front-runner, is elected president this time.
"If McCain wins, obviously he knows Diana. She served on his staff," said Jon Sands, the federal public defender for Arizona. "I don't know if she stays (as Arizona's U.S. attorney) or if there may be a role in Washington for her."
Humetewa declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.
Petti agreed with the comments. "It certainly would be a smart move," he said. "There's a lot of positions, even positions that aren't subject to congressional approval ... and she certainly would be a good candidate."
TERM EXPIRES SOON
No matter her plans, Humetewa's term as U.S. attorney expires in about a year. Because she took over Charlton's four-year term more than halfway through, she will essentially have to reapply for the job shortly after the next president takes office. Until then, perhaps the most important thing she can do is stabilize the Phoenix office.
The indictment of Renzi, who maintains he is innocent, could be a vehicle for that, said her predecessor Charlton, who served in the role for six years.
"There has to be a great deal of satisfaction with arriving at the point in time where you can publicly talk about the indictment," he said.
When speaking with Charlton, his compliments about Humetewa abound. Since leaving office and entering private practice with the high-powered Phoenix law firm Gallagher & Kennedy, he has been one of her most available champions.
The suspicion from the Arizona Democratic Party, as laid out in its March 2007 letter, was a "rush to judgment," Charlton said. "And I think they have certainly been proven wrong by the indictment," he said.
During her time working under him, Charlton said Humetewa was a strong trial lawyer who often showed her independent side. But for whatever reason, it took President Bush almost a year to nominate her to the job after she was recommended by McCain and Kyl.
Charlton thinks the reason was because top officials in the Department of Justice figured she couldn't be swayed. "I think the concern was that she would be somebody who would act independently," he said.
Eventually, late last year, Humetewa was nominated, confirmed and sworn in within a matter of weeks.
Charlton said there was a "direct correlation" between the time U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was forced from office, amid the federal prosecutors scandal, and when Humetewa's nomination began to move forward.
Once Michael Mukasey was picked to lead the Justice Department, Charlton said, "things started to happen for her."
Justice Department officials did not respond to questions submitted for this story.
At the Feb. 22 news conference to announce the Renzi indictment, Humetewa said she and the investigators from the FBI and IRS "had tremendous support from Washington."
To prove it, she had Peter Ainsworth, a high-level official from the Justice Department in Washington standing behind her, saying very little but showing his backing.
That's a good thing, Charlton said, because Humetewa would probably react strongly to political pressure from above. "I can say unequivocally that Diane will never bend to those political dictates," Charlton said. "I'm quite sure that Diane would resign before she gave into those."