WASHINGTON — The Senate panel investigating the Iran- contra scandal voted Wednesday to hold retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord in contempt for failing to respond to a subpoena of bank records, starting a process that could leave Secord with the choice of handing over the documents or going to jail.
Secord, who reportedly ran a private supply network for the Nicaraguan rebels, is believed to be a key player in the sale of U.S. arms to Iran and diversion of profits to the contras. Investigators hope that his financial records, including those tracing cash movements through his Swiss bank accounts, could shed light on a major remaining mystery in the scandal, the "money trail" that could solidly link the arms sales and the contras.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate panels looking into the controversy agreed to combine their operations--a time-saving move that may enable them to finish their work and issue a joint report in September, Senate panel Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said. The committees' long-awaited public hearings are expected to begin May 5 and continue for several months.
House Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) said that the hearings will have three phases, focusing first on military aid that was provided to the contras, then on the secret sale of U.S. arms to the Tehran regime and finally on "assignment of responsibility" for the entire operation.
The two committees and independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh also agreed on a timetable that could force former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter to testify privately as early as May 2 and publicly as early as June 15. Poindexter would receive limited immunity, a guarantee that he would not be prosecuted on the basis of any evidence developed from his testimony.
A separate and later schedule was established for giving limited immunity to fired White House aide Oliver L. North. Under that plan, if the committees decide that they must have North's testimony, they would compel him to give his account to a few representatives of the panel in private as early as June 15 and in public on June 23 or later.
North and Poindexter, the central figures in the Iran-contra drama, have refused to testify before various congressional committees, citing the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Allows Walsh 90 Days
In essence, the arrangement allows Walsh to have the 90 days he has requested to develop any evidence he can against Poindexter and North before the two receive immunity, Hamilton said.
Poindexter's testimony is being sought before North's, a source said, because the former national security adviser is "a very credible witness."
More importantly, other sources added, Poindexter may be the only person who is able to give the investigators a full account of how much President Reagan knew about last year's suspected diversion of profits to the contras, which apparently would have violated a congressional ban on military aid to the rebels that was then in effect.
The deal, a product of weeks of negotiations, attempts to strike a balance between the committees' desire to complete their investigations as quickly as possible and Walsh's concern that a hasty granting of immunity might jeopardize any case he may eventually press against the two.
Once witnesses receive immunity, Walsh may prosecute them only if he can develop evidence independently of their testimony before Congress.
Will Testify Privately
If immunity is granted, initial testimony will be taken privately through an unusual high-security procedure under which the revelations by North and Poindexter would be withheld even from most lawmakers on the committees. The longer the testimony can be kept secret--a relatively rare feat on Capitol Hill--the longer Walsh has to develop his case independently.
The Senate committee's decision to hold Secord in contempt is expected to be approved by the full Senate, which then will send the application to federal District Court here. The court then is expected to weigh against Congress' right to demand the records Secord's arguments that disclosure of the records would violate his Fifth Amendment rights.
If the court sides with Congress, Secord would have to comply with the request or face penalties that include a jail term, though he could appeal the decision.
Secord could not be reached Wednesday and his attorney, Thomas C. Green, did not return repeated phone calls. Green previously has said that Secord would not provide testimony, documents or other evidence unless he receives immunity.