Attorney General Griffin B. Bell will travel to Capitol Hill this morning for an unprecedented report of junior House members on the status of the criminal investigation of alleged South Korean influence-buying in Congress.
Because it has been made clear that there will be no discussion of specific details of the case, the meeting is viewed largely as a symbolic gesture to reassure the younger members that the Justice Department has been diligent in pursuing the investigation.
Department spokesman said yesterday they could recall no other instance where an Attorney General had briefed Congress, even in general terms, about an on-going investigation - and certainly not about an investigation on Congress.
Up to now, in fact, the department has refused requests for such briefings, saying they would be "inappropriate" or so general as to be "uninformative and therefore unhelpful."
The meeting apparently was arranged by the White House through House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) without the knowledge of the head of the department's criminal division, Benjamin R. Civiletti.
Civiletti said yesterday he was first told about the meeting Monday by a Bell aide. "Maybe we'll be able to articulate orally what we've been doing," he said. "What our concerns are. How vigorously we've been moving . . . Perhaps it's more appropriate to say what we can say here, rather than piecemeal to many different inquiries."
Leaders of the freshman and sophomore House Democrats said yesterday that they don't expect the meeting to reveal anything substantive about the investigation.
"But I guess we want to get some assurrances that they're really pushing this and to let them know that we want them to do the job throughly," said Rep. Edward R. Pattison (R-N.Y.)
Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (Pa.), who has led a movement of junior Democrats calling for appointment of a Watergate style special prosecutor in the case, said through an aide that he hoped Bell and Civiletti would use the forum to explain their rationale against such a move.
Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), whose earlier requests for a briefing had been turned down, said she was disturbed to learn that Bell and Civiletti did not plan to answer questions.
"I think it's an affront to the intelligence of Congress if they believe they can reassure us about the effectiveness of their investigation without answering questions," she said.
The Justice Department briefing grew out of meetings the junior Democrats held last week with O'Neill following the sudden resignation of Philip A. Lacovara, the top attorney for a separate, but parallel, internal House investigation.
Pattison said that O'Neill had volunteered to set up the meeting with Bell, reportedly after White House congressional liaison Frank Moore had offered to arrange such a briefing. Moore could not be reached for comment yesterday.
A top Bell aide, who declined to be identified, said the meeting was scheduled because "the volume of requests had built up to the point where it seemed something had to be done whether it was superficial or not.
"The fact is not much is going to happen. Judge Bell is not going to discuss individual cases, or indictments or numbers of people involved," he said. "But it may be helpful if it helps the climate up there. Those people want to be reassured."
In a related development, Suzi Park Thomson, a South Korean native who was an aide to former House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) told reporters that she had refused to talk to House committee investigators except in a public hearing.
She has been identified in U.S. intelligence reports as a suspected operative for the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, but has denied any involvement in making payments to members of Congress.
And in what seems to be the first legislative fallout from the South Korean scandal, the House voted yesterday to allow the Agriculture Department to act as the agent for countries buying U.S. farm products under the Food for Peace program.
Tongsun Park, a key figure in the current investigations, is known to have used his fees as agent for South Korean Food for Peace rice purchases to make cash payments to some members of Congress. The Senate has adopted a similar measure.