A spokesman for Attorney General Griffin B. Bell insisted yesterday that it was President Carter himself who agreed to shelve his campaign promises about appointing U.S. attorneys strictly on the basis of merit.
According to chief Justice Department spokesman Marvin Wall, the attorney general was little more than a witness to the controversial, and long-secret understanding with Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Bell just sat in. It was actually a meeting between President-elect Carter and Eastland - on Dec. 13, 1976, at the governor's mansion in Atlanta," Wall said.
The new account from the Justice Department arose in the context of the continuing controversy over the Carter administration's dismissal of U.S. Attorney David W. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Philadelphia last month in the midst of a serial of investigations of political corruption in Pennsylvania involving Democratic office- [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
[WORD ILLEGIBLE] , which Carter defended this week as [WORD ILLEGIBLE] matter," prompted thousands of complaints from angry Philadelphians and even some scattered suggestions that Bell should be impeached in light of his testimony at confirmation hearings last year before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Under questioning by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) on Jan. 11, 1977, Bell promised to give the "most careful consideration" to retention of incumbent U.S. attorneys on the basis of merit - without revealing the secret agreement with Eastland to abide by the traditional system of patronage appointments.
Wall said he was reacting to a story in Tuesday's editions of The Washington Post which mentioned the notion of impeachment and which described the arrangement on patronage as an agreement between Eastland and Bell.
This was the way it had been described by Associate Attorney General Michael J. Egan in a Dec. 20, 1977, letter to Rep. Robert F. Drinan of the House Judiciary Committee. Egan said then it was "an oral exchange between Judge Bell and Sen. Eastland which took place in Atlanta in late December of 1976 or early January of 1977."
Wall, however, insisted that this was inaccurate. He said he spoke with the attorney general to confirm that it was President-elect Carter who had made the concession to Eastland.
"I told him I was going to call you and tell you the story needed correcting," Wall said.
Eastland had a somewhat different recollection.
"Judge Bell and me discussed it," the Mississippi senator said in a telephone interview about the retention of the patronage system for U.S. attorney appointments. Eastland said that he thought the two of them talked about it while riding in a car together on their way to see Carter that day. The President-elect was holding meetings at the Georgia governor's mansion that day as part of the Cabinet selection process.
"I just give him (Bell) my ideas on it," Eastland said.
At the meeting with Carter, however, Eastland said, "if we discussed it with the President, I don't remember it."
Told of Eastland's account, Wall said that Bell had yet to be asked by Carter to serve as attorney general at that point and had no authority to make any commitments.
White House press secretary Jody Powell said he was not present at the meeting and could offer no details. Atlanta lawyer Charles Kirbo said he attended a portion of the session but remembered nothing being said about U.S. attorney appointments.
Eastland said he was summoned to the meeting by Carter but declined to say what the main purpose was.
Wall said the purpose of the get-together, as he understood it, was "to discuss merit selection of federal judges and U.S. attorneys." According to the Justice Department spokesman, Eastland told both Bell and Carter that "we couldn't change [the method of choosing] U.S. attorneys right then."
In a speech last May 18 before the American Law Institute and more formally, in testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee last June 22, Bell said "that the decision had been made to leave the U.S. attorney in the patronage system . . . [We] have an agreement with the Senate if they take the court of appeals judges out of the patronage system, we would go along with the other . . ."
Aftre pressing for more details for months, Rep. Drinan family got the Dec. 20 letter from Egan tracing it all to "an oral exchange between Judge Bell and Sen. Eastland . . ."
Egan could not reached for comment on how e got that impression. Meanwhile, Wall insisted several times that there was no "agreement" as such and several times asked a reporter whether Judge Bell had really used that word in House testimony.
Assured that the attorney General had done so, Wall repeated, "Actually it was not so much an agreement as Sen. Eastland telling 'em [Carter and Bell] what the Senate would sit still for."