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Fuel for Senate Committee's Fire

The judiciary panel's rift widens amid a probe into GOP staff tapping the Democrats' files.

January 23, 2004|Mary Curtius and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Revelations that at least one Republican staff member rifled through the computer files of his Democratic counterparts on the Senate Judiciary Committee have driven relations to a new low among members of a panel already split by fights over judicial nominees.

Sergeant-at-Arms William Pickle has called in Secret Service computer forensics experts, interviewed dozens of staff members and confiscated computer hard drives to determine who accessed parts of 15 memos dealing with Democratic strategy on judicial nominations, staff members said Thursday. At one point, investigators sealed off the room where the Judiciary Committee computer server is located and posted a guard at the door.

Pickle is expected to report to the committee next week on his investigation. But Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the committee's ranking Democrat, already has installed a separate server for the Democratic senators and their staff to prevent further transgressions. Democrats and Republicans on the committee previously had shared a server.

Speaking on Thursday at the committee's first meeting since the investigation began, Leahy described President Bush's appointment of Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, his renomination of Claude Allen to a seat on the 4th Circuit and "the pilfering of Democratic offices' computer files by Republican staff" as "disappointing developments" that made it hard for committee members to work together.

The unauthorized access of computer memos "by Republican employees both on and off the committee ... is a serious breach of trust, morals, and possibly the rules of the U.S. Senate," Leahy said. The leaked memos have embarrassed Democrats because they spoke of how liberal interest groups suggested that they try to block Bush's judicial nominees.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), a committee member, spoke more bluntly. "If we are going to have any functioning bipartisanship on the Judiciary Committee, any staff member who participated in this kind of activity should be fired," she said in an interview.

Democrats demanded the investigation late last year, after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the committee chairman, said in a November news conference that at least one member of his staff had "improperly accessed" the memos, which were leaked later to a conservative website that tracks judicial nominations. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times later wrote articles and editorials based on the memos.

Hatch said at the time that he was "mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files may have occurred on my watch," and said he had placed the offending staff member on leave with pay. Hatch declined to name the staff member, but said the man was cooperating with Pickle's investigation.

The Boston Globe reported Thursday that Pickle's investigation had revealed that the breach lasted from spring 2002 until at least April 2003. The article said that Republican staff members had exploited a "glitch" in the computer system that allowed them to access Democratic documents without a password.

A spokeswoman for Pickle would say only that "there is an ongoing investigation into the leaked memos and we hope to conclude the investigation in the next three to four weeks."

Adam Elggren, a spokesman for Hatch, also declined to comment on the investigation.

It is unclear whether the intrusion would constitute a criminal act. Some Republicans have maintained that the materials belonged to the Senate and, therefore, no privacy was breached. Democrats have insisted that staff members had a reasonable expectation of privacy in writing to their senators, and that the unauthorized access represented at least an ethical and moral breach, if not a criminal act.

Parts of the memos and talking points that appeared on the website and later in some news reports that dealt with Democratic strategy for blocking nominations.

One memo, from Nov. 7, 2001, to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) from a staff member, described a meeting between Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), a committee member, and "representatives of various civil rights groups." The groups, the memo said, "identified Miguel Estrada

Bush nominated Estrada in May 2001 to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Estrada withdrew his nomination in September 2003 after Democrats mounted several filibusters to block it.

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