Attorney General Griffin B. Bell told an inquisitive Senate Judicary Committee yesterday that he was as concerned as his critics about the "appearance of justice" in the Carter administration.
"If I can't make the Justice Department have the appearance of Justice then I've failed," Bell said. "That's what bothers me so much about the Marston case."
The controversy over the handling of the dismissal Republican U.S. Attorney David W. Marston in Philadelphia "set back a year what I have been trying to do to restore the confidence of the American people of the Department of Justice," Bell said.
The firing made Marston a national figure - and a candidate for Pennsylvania governor - because Rep. Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.) called President Carter last November to urge the prosecutor's replacement. At the time, Eilberg was a potential target of a criminal investigation by Marston's office.
Bell said yesterday that Carter and White House congressional lobbyists Frank Moore and William Cable have been questioned by the FBI. The department has been trying to determine whether Eilberg tried to obstruct justice with his call to the president.
The attorney general's appearance yesterday was part of an agreement to get a vote on the nomination of Benjamin R. Civiletti to be his chief deputy. Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-WYO.) being using the Civiletti hearings to question a wide range of Justice Department activities. A vote now is set for Friday.
The exchanges between Bell and Wallop were amiable for the most part yesterday, with the attorney general even apologizing once for being "argumentative."
But at one point Bell made a statement about his handling of the FBI break-ins investigation that was questioned later by one of his own prosecutors.
In reply to Wallop, Bell said that he personally appealed to assistant FBI director J. Wallace LaPrade, head of the case because he was "stone-walling."
Bell labeled as a "gossip column" a Washington Post report Sunday that said he had rejected a recommended perjury charge against LaPrade and asked him instead to correct previous grand jury testimony.
"It was not that I told him to change testimony," Bell said. "I told him to give testimony. There's a big difference."
Stephen A. Horn, one of the attorneys who resigned from the FBI case in a dispute will Bell, took issue with Bell's comments. "The attorney general's statement [yesterday] appears to imply that the meeting with Mr. LaPrade was for some purpose other than to induce him to recant," he said.
"The express purpose of the meeting was to induce him to recant," Horn said.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) later said Bell if a perjury charge against LaPrade wouldn't have been a way to show the law applied as equally to FBI officials as ordinary citizens.
Bell sai, "No question about it." But he added that as attorney general he acted as both a prosecutor and an administrator. "I'm trying to run the FBI. I'm trying to save it, so I have to consider what's good for the FBI," he said.
He had said he didn't want to indict LaPrade for perjury because it would reflect badly on all FBI agents.
LaPrade was not charged in the case but now faces disciplinary action. Former acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray III and two other former high-ranking FBI officials were indicted Monday on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of friends and relatives of members of the fugitive Weather Underground in the early 1970s.
Bell made these points about other sensitive cases he has handled during his first year in office:
The investigation of former budget director Bert Lance has progressed to a point where Civiletti recently asked a three-member department review committee to gather its several parts together for an evaluation. Civiletti declined in a later telephone interview to say how soon that analysis would be made.
The prosecutors investigating alleged South Korean influence-buying in COngress are still considering "from two to five" possible indictments. Bell said he hopes to be able to have a truck haul the case files over to congressional investigators within two months.