WASHINGTON — Some African American leaders are asking the government to look into a new conspiracy theory--that the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown was murdered last year and his government plane was crashed in Croatia to cover it up.
The Pentagon, the Justice Department and the White House say the claim is completely unfounded and insist that Brown, then the highest-ranking black member of the Cabinet, died along with 34 others on his trade mission when their Air Force transport strayed off course and crashed into a mountainside in 1996.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry has reacted bluntly to the murder theory, saying the allegations are being promoted by "people who, no doubt, for whatever reason, hate the president of the United States."
"The Pentagon has very thoroughly and in very gruesome detail--and no doubt in ways painful to the Brown family--addressed this issue," McCurry said. "It's time to knock this stuff off."
The assassination theory surfaced earlier this month in a newspaper owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, a wealthy conservative and well-known conspiracy theorist.
Citing those allegations, black activist Dick Gregory was arrested Wednesday outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington when he used yellow police tape to try to seal off the main entrance of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the office that conducted the medical examination of Brown's body.
Calling it a "crime scene," Gregory led a protest rally to accuse military officials of covering up evidence of Brown's murder.
In the past week, Kweisi Mfume--head of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and a former Maryland congressman--and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, have written federal officials to ask for more data on the allegations, which first appeared in Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Writing in the Dec. 3 issue, reporter Christopher Ruddy quoted Lt. Col. Steve Cogswell, an institute pathologist, as saying "an apparent gunshot wound" in the top of Brown's head was never fully investigated.
Ruddy previously wrote articles suggesting that White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster had been murdered in 1993, although separate investigations by two independent counsels, Robert B. Fiske Jr. and Kenneth W. Starr, have concluded that he committed suicide.
In Brown's case, the Air Force reported after a lengthy inquiry that pilot error contributed to the April 1996 crash of an Air Force CT-43 transport carrying Brown and his entourage.
Responding to homicide allegations, an official of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology acknowledged Wednesday that doctors initially were puzzled by a circular wound on the top of Brown's head when his remains were recovered at the crash scene.
"Upon initial inquiry, it looked like a gunshot entry," said Chris Kelly, the institute's public affairs officer.
"The forensic pathologist then consulted with others and took extensive X-rays. As a result of these consultations and full-body X-rays, we absolutely ruled out anything beyond a blunt-force injury to the head."
Cogswell, the primary source of Ruddy's article, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His office reported that he was "on vacation."
Kelly said Cogswell "had nothing to do with the Brown inquiry" and is the subject of an internal inquiry in connection with outside speeches he has been giving titled "Mistakes in Forensic Pathology." A second pathologist cited by Ruddy also was not involved in the Brown investigation, but saw initial photos of the circular head wound, Kelly said.
"These allegations are way out, and there's nothing to them," he added.
The motive for an alleged murder of Brown is not clear, although some backers of the theory have speculated he knew of possible wrongdoing by President Clinton or other administration officials. Brown's own financial affairs were under investigation by an independent counsel at the time of his death. Before his Cabinet appointment, he had directed Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.
Mfume said in a letter to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno that allegations that homicide was overlooked in Brown's death "require an explanation."
"The NAACP is very concerned about the ramifications of these allegations, and left unanswered and unresolved, they raise serious questions," his letter said.
In a similar letter to Reno and to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Waters said the allegations "have sparked a firestorm of inquiries" from her constituents and others.
"I would like to request that you evaluate the issues raised . . . and make a determination of whether an investigation into the allegations is warranted," Waters wrote.
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said the department "is not looking into the matter now." He added that "if there is credible information that a crime has been committed, we would look into it."
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.