Justice Dept. Opens Inquiry on Memo Theft
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
ASHINGTON, April 26 — The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into accusations that Republican Congressional aides stole sensitive Democratic memorandums, and the department has tapped David N. Kelley, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, to lead the politically charged case, officials said Monday.
The decision to bring in Mr. Kelley, rather than have prosecutors in Washington pursue the case, came after lawmakers from both parties urged the Justice Department to appoint an independent prosecutor to avoid the appearance of a conflict.
The department said in a letter dated Monday that it was confident that Mr. Kelley would conduct the investigation "in a thorough, fair, impartial and professional manner." Several leading Democrats applauded his appointment, with Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York saying it was "a very good first step."
The opening of the criminal inquiry increases the significance of the case, which has provoked open hostilities between Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee in their continuing battle over President Bush's judicial nominations.
In March, the Senate sergeant-at-arms concluded in a 65-page report that two Republican staff aides had engaged in widespread, unauthorized and possibly illegal spying by reading Democratic strategy memorandums on a Senate computer system.
Over at least 18 months, the aides improperly read, downloaded and printed 4,670 files concerning Democratic tactics in opposing many of Mr. Bush's judicial nominees, the report said, and some of the material was leaked to conservative groups supporting the nominees and news media outlets.
The sergeant-at-arms suggested that the unauthorized spying could have violated laws against the receipt of stolen property and lying to investigators, among others. The report also suggested that many other Republican aides might have been involved in trafficking in the stolen documents, and Democrats have questioned whether officials at the Justice Department and the White House were also privy to the material in working to support Mr. Bush's nominees and derail Democratic opposition.
The two aides implicated in the affair have both left the Senate. One, Manuel C. Miranda, who had worked for both the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, and Senator Orrin G. Hatch, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has defended his conduct in numerous interviews, saying he was able to access the computer memorandums because of Democratic negligence in securing them, not because of any theft or criminal wrongdoing.
Some conservative groups have said that the memorandums reveal ethical improprieties by the Democrats in colluding with liberal groups to block Mr. Bush's nominations. But there is no indication that this will be an element of the criminal inquiry by Mr. Kelley, officials said.
Mr. Hatch, who said in March that he was "mortified" by the ethical breach, said through a spokesman on Monday that he "has every faith" that the Justice Department and Mr. Kelley's office "will do the right thing here."
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the judiciary panel, also welcomed the Justice Department's decision, saying, "With the powers available to a federal prosecutor, this matter can now be more thoroughly investigated, so that those who engaged in criminal conduct may be brought to justice."
Senator Schumer said that while Mr. Kelley, a Democrat, was an independent and capable prosecutor "without conflicts," Attorney General John Ashcroft should still remove himself from oversight of the case to avoid any potential conflicts.
A Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "Ashcroft has a potential conflict on many levels because he has a personal relationship with many of the Republican senators and he has direct control over Justice Department employees who may become involved in the investigation."
Mr. Kelley's office declined to comment. While the letter sent Monday by the Justice Department said that Mr. Kelley had been assigned to the case, it left open whether he would have the type of broad autonomy given to the prosecutor in another politically sensitive case involving the leak of a C.I.A. officer's identity.
In that case, Mr. Ashcroft recused himself after months of complaints from Democrats, and his deputy gave the United States attorney in Chicago, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, authority to conduct an independent investigation.