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THE NATION

Hacking Inquiry May Head to Justice Dept.

Senate panel agrees to an outside investigation of judiciary files looted by GOP staffers.

March 12, 2004|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate's investigation into how Republicans got access to Democrats' computer memos should be turned over to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, lawmakers said Thursday.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he was letting the Senate's sergeant-at-arms, William Pickle, decide how to do that.

"Do what you think is right," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) told Pickle. Hatch's instructions came after the parties failed to agree on a joint letter to the department asking for an independent prosecutor.

Democrats have written Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft asking for a special prosecutor to investigate the matter.

Pickle suggested Thursday that the Judiciary Committee hand over his report to the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia and let that office decide whether to prosecute.

Pickle's investigators have blamed two former Republican aides for snooping through a shared Judiciary Committee computer and downloading memos from Senate Democrats and Hatch.

Democrats and some Republicans on the committee prefer that a special prosecutor rather than the U.S. attorney in Washington handle the case.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said one of his aides who had his documents taken was married to someone in that prosecutor's office, creating a conflict of interest in the matter.

Other former Senate aides also now work in the Justice Department, which could create a conflict of interest there too, senators said.

"It might be in everyone's best interest if a special counsel handles this," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).

Pickle reminded senators that even if the committee asked, the department would not be required to appoint a special prosecutor.

Pickle's report faulted two of Hatch's former staffers for the intrusion.

It says 4,670 files were found on a GOP aide's computer, "the majority of which appeared to be from folders belonging to Democratic staff." The memos concern political strategy on blocking confirmation of several judicial nominations.

Democrats want an outside investigator to see whether any of President Bush's judicial nominees profited from the files and if anyone in the White House or the department saw the memos.

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