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Panels May Delay Offers of Immunity : Would Give Walsh Time to Investigate North, Poindexter

March 11, 1987|SARA FRITZ and KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Congressional committees investigating the Iran- contra scandal Tuesday began working out the details of a plan providing for the long-awaited public testimony of former White House aides John M. Poindexter and Oliver L. North no sooner than the end of May.

The plan also would allow independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh some of the additional time that he has been seeking to build a criminal case against the two men, whose testimony is believed to hold the key to whether President Reagan was told about any diversion of profits from the Iranian arms sales to U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels.

North and Poindexter have refused to testify on grounds that it would violate the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but congressional investigators believe that the men would be willing to appear if granted limited immunity against prosecution. Under limited immunity, the two could not be prosecuted for any information divulged in their testimony.

'Jeopardy to Prosecution'

On Tuesday, Walsh asked the committees to delay granting immunity to North and Poindexter for at least 90 days to give him additional time to develop sufficient evidence to prosecute them--if possible--without relying on their testimony to the committees. He told reporters that there is "an inevitable jeopardy to prosecution from a premature grant of immunity."

Walsh's request came at a time when the Senate investigating committee appeared to be on the verge of voting to grant immunity to North and Poindexter. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said that an early vote for immunity is necessary to allow the committee to complete its work by Aug. 1, when it must submit a report to the full Senate.

"I don't wish to be presiding over this committee in March of 1988," Inouye said.

Testimony at End of May

Although the senator did not agree to Walsh's request for a 90-day delay, he indicated that his committee had no intention of taking testimony from either North or Poindexter under a grant of limited immunity before the end of May, at the earliest.

Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), vice chairman of the Senate investigating committee, explained that--even if the committee votes within the next few days to grant immunity to the two men--the process of obtaining court approval for immunity and preparing the witnesses to testify would take at least until late May.

The independent prosecutor has no power to block a congressional grant of immunity for more than 30 days. The matter is expected to be discussed further in a meeting attended by Inouye, Rudman and Walsh today.

Members of the House committee investigating the Iran-contra affair, who met with Walsh Tuesday, also will discuss the proposed delay today. Walsh said that, when he discussed it with the House panel's members, "they gave me a very full hearing, and by their questions showed a sincere concern for the problems of the prosecution and a sense of their own responsibility for doing a thorough and careful job of great importance and difficulty."

Calls Panel Attentive

He said they were "receptive in the sense that they were extraordinarily attentive."

Inouye said that the House and Senate committees would act in unison on the issue of immunity. "Whatever is decided, it will be done by joint decision," he said.

Thus far, the congressional panels have extended immunity to three people: Fawn Hall, the former secretary to North who reportedly helped him alter, destroy and carry away documents; Robert Dutton, a retired military officer reportedly involved in the private supply network to the contras, and Edward de Garay, owner of a Pennsylvania airfield whose company is believed to have helped finance some shipments to the contras.

Walsh did not object to immunity for those three.

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