House Republican Whip Robert H. Michel yesterday accused Attorney General Griffin B. Bell and a top aide of taking an insulting "cheap shot" at the Ford administration by suggesting it had delayed investigation of Korean influence-peddling.
The second-ranking House GOP member, from Illinois, challenged the officials to disclose any "evidence of a cover-up" by the Ford adnministration or stop "using smear tactics in an attempt to explain away slow progress" that Democrats are making in the Korean probe.
He said the comments made Wednesday by Bell and Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti were a "cheap shot at the former President and an in suit to former Attorney General Edward Levi" and raised "insinuations that the former administration deliberately delayed the investigation."
Bell and Civiletti briefed House members Wednesday on the Justice Department's investigation into allegations that South Korean agents tried during the 1970s to bribe Congressmen into passing legislation favorable to Korea.
Civiletti said the federal inquiry got into high gear only after then-President Ford had left the White House. By that time, he noted, the alleged paymaster of the covert lobbying effort, Korean businessman Tongsun Park, had gone to London.
Asked Thursday if he would conduct an investigation to determine if there had been any attempt to cover up the Korean operation, Bell said, "We'll look into that, but we don't want to get into that right now. We're doing all we can right now."
There have been repeated reports that top government officials were told in the early 1970s about the existence of a covert Korean lobbying effort.
Michel said Bell should immediately appoint a Watergate-style special prosecutor to look into these allegations, adding that "regardless of the evidence, it was cheap and irresponsible" of Civiletti to have suggested that the Ford administration delayed the probe.
If there is no evidence, Michel said, Bell and Civiletti "have dragged the Justice Department into a purely political tug-of-war on which party is going to be hurt the most by the Korean scandal."
A similiar reaction came from Rep. Bruce Caputo (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Ethics committee, which is conducting its own investigation of the Korean bribery scandal.
In a letter to Civiletti, Caputo said: "The plain meaning of your statements at the briefing is that persons in previous administrations were aware of the Korean problem as early as 1972 but took no definite action until late 1976 and that no serious investigation was begun until early 1977.