Carter administration officials yesterday scrambled to clarify the role Charles H. Kirbo, President Carter's closest unofficial adviser, will play in the General Services Administration investigations.
In the process, different administration spokesmen issued conflicting statements. But when the news releases were all corrected, it was agreed that Kirbo was brought in merely to advise GSA Administrator Jay Solomon on his internal inquires of bribes and kickbacks - not to participate in the separate Justice Department investigation.
Still, two Republican senators used the occasion to call for a special prosecutor in the widening scandal, one who would be free of White House influence.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that Carter had called Kirbo in "to monitor the case. The article quoted Kirbo as saying he had talked to Justice Department officials about the GSA investigation.
The article also quoted Justice Department officials, who questioned the propriety and appearance of having an outsider monitor a federal criminal investigation.
Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, a former law partner of Kirbo, issued a strong statement yesterday morning saying that Kirbo "has no role in any investigation conducted by the Justice Department."
Kirbo's role in advising Solomon "does not and will not include any access to information that is derived from criminal investigations conducted by the Department of Justice or any role or monitoring function with respect to those investigations or our prosecutions."
Just a few days earlier Bell had made a speech to department attorneys emphasizing the Justice Department's independence from what could be construed as White House interference.
But the clarfication effort became confused again when Solomon issued a statement saying: "I welcome Mr. Kirbo's participation wholeheartedly. I'm sure Mr. Kirbo will be of considerable help to the GSA and the Justice Department in the monumental job we are trying to do."
About an hour later, GSA revised that statement to delete the reference to Kirbo's help to Justice Department.
Kirbo said in a phone interview from Georgia yesterday that he "did talk to [Griffin Bell], not to get any information about indictments, just to see what point in the game it was, just to sort of get my bearings.
"Griffin didn't tell me what they were doing. He said everything was going all right. The president didn't ask me to talk with Griffin, Just to Jay."
Kirbo has been in constant contact with Bell as well as Carter throughout the Carter administration. His role was raised with Bell as early as February 1977 during a news conference at an American Bar Association meeting in Seattle.
Bell said then that Kirbo's status to the government "every time he advises the president." He based that statement on a 1963 statute, he said.
No one can give the government advice as a friend, Bell said. In that context, he added, "There's no such thing as a friend."
The special employe status holds Kirbo to conflict-of-interest laws that apply to regular government workers.
Robert J. Lipshutz, counsel to the president, said yesterday in a telephone interview that Kirbo has advised members of the administration "from time to time" without any formal arrangement. He said Kirbo is brought in because he brings "objectivity" as an outsider. That doesn't mean the White House doesn't trust full-time government advisers, Lipshutz added.
Kirbo advised the administration on such subjects as the amnesty plan for draft evaders in the early days of Carter's presidency, and more recently in trying to work out a settlement on Indian land claims in Maine, officials said.
Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), meanwhile demanded that someone other than Kirbo oversee the GSA investigation. By calling in Kirbo, Dole said, Carter has "undercut" the officials responsible for the investigation.
Roth said he would press for appointment of a special prosecutor because "self-investigation doesn't work. Charles Kirbo is closely identified with the executive beanch he is investigating."