President Carter does not recall discussing the patronage system of appointing U.S. attorneys with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) when the two men met in Atlanta in December, 1976, White House press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday.
Carter's recollection of the meeting "is about the same as Sen. Eastlands." Powell said.
Eastland has said that if the question of appointing U..S. attorneys came up at the meeitng "I don't remember it."
Powell was responding to questions about the meeting, during which, according to a JusticceDepartment spokesman, the then-president-elect decided to continue the patronage system for the prosecurors, although in his campaign Carter ha dpledged to appoint judges and U.S. attorneys stirctly on the basis merit.
But Powell also claimed that the administration has made in roads in changing the system - rejecting some appointments recommended by senators - and would like to see further changes.
Adopting a belligerent stance, the press secretary issued a challenge in the case of David W. Marston, the Republican U.S. attorney in Philadelphia whose ouster has produced charges that Carter has backed down on his promise to remove the Justice Department from politics.
"We're going to have an appointment in Philadelphia shortly and I want ot go on record in the strongest possible terms and invite a comparison of the record of our appointee and the person who used to hole that job."
Justice Department officials have previously said that Eastland and Attorney General Griffin B. Bell reached an understanding on retention of the patronage system in appointing U.S. attorney before Carter's inauguration as president .
But on Wednesday, Maryin'Walll, the chief Justice Spokesman, said the acccomodation was actually reached as a meeting between Carter and Eastland on Dec. 13, 1976, in Atlanta. Wall said Bell "Just sat in."
Wherever the agreement was reached, White House officials have not disputed thte fact that Carter even before his inauguration decided to go along with the existing system, which Powell yesterday characterized as "very ingrained in the political system" in Washington.
Earlier in the day, at a breakfast here with reporters, Marston provided fresh details about hit two-hour meeting with bell on Jan. 20. which ended with Marston's ouster from the U.S. attorney's post.
Marston said the showdown session in Bell's office at the Justice Department was cordial for the most part, but the attorneys general did show a flash of anger over a confidential letter Marston said he had written to Bell during the controversy.
The PhiladelPhia Republican said he enclosed with the letter some tapes produced by informants during the recent federal invetigations of former Pennyslvania House Speaker Herbert Fineman and Henry J. Cianfrani, who was chairman to the Pennsylvania Senate's Appropriation Committee. Both recordings, Marston said, cleary showed that the "defense strategy" of both politicians was to try to delay the investigation until they could "get rid of Marston" and press for appointment of a more malleable U.S. atttorney.
Marston said he would not disclose the contents of his letter to Bell, but the former prosecutor said the attorney general took it to mean that "I was saying he was obstructing jjustice. He said, 'You're trying to hold me hostage.' I told him I wasn't."