In an extraordinary series of weekend briefings, the Carter administration has angrily but confidently disputed accusations by columnist Jack Anderson that the White House was improperly approached to assist fugitive financier Robert Vesco with his legal problems.
Hamilton Jordan, the top presidential adviser who is the central target of Anderson's allegations, called them "malicious and unsubstantiated lies", said he had retained high-powered Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams, and hinted at possible libel action against Anderson.
(The Anderson column is on Page C27.)
The White House not only brought Jordan and press secretary Jody Powell down from the Camp David summit, but produced for reporters the legal counsel to the State Department, the U.S. attorney in charge of the Vesco case, and top Justice Department aides for a complete review of the government's policies on the Vesco matter.
In the process, they poked a number of holes in the factual basis of the Anderson report and noted, as Anderson himself has said, that there was no evidence whatsoever that anyone in the administration had lifted a finger to help Vesco.
Vesco, who last made headlines when he sought help from the Nixon administration, is now reported to be in the Bahamas, fugitive from five federal indictments charging that he plundered a publicly held company of millions of dollars and then tried to buy his way out of trouble with a $200,000 contribution to the Nixon election campaign in 1972.
Vesco has been successfully avoiding trial since 1973 by fleeing first to Costa Rica and then, earlier this year, to the Bahamas.
The Anderson column alleges that Vesco sought to settle his problems once and for all by getting a group of Georgians to intercede with Jordan and presidential confidant Charles Kirbo. Anderson implied that the effort met with some success, linking it to a switch in U.S. efforts to get Vesco returned.
Like Jordan, Kirbo disputed the allegations.
The White House response was complicated by the fact that there were in effect two Anderson columns. The first, distributed to Anderson clients late last week, alleged that the government "suddenly dropped its efforts to extradite Vesco" and removed the ambassador to Costa Rica who had been pressing for extradition.
The second column only said the government had changed its policies. It also dropped entirely Anderson's first paragraph, which had said Jordan and Kirbo were "linked to a $10
Administration officials did acknowledge that the Justice Department shifted its strategy on trying to get Vesco back during the spring of 1977. But they said the change, set forth in a June 15, 1977, memo for the president by then Assistant Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, was unrelated to any efforts that Vesco's associates from Georgia might have been making earlier that year.
The shift was to give up what had been unsuccessful attempts to extradite Vesco and work instead to get him expelled so he could be apprehended.
The Civiletti memo was triggered by an interest in the Vesco situation expressed by Rosalynn Carter upon her return from a trip to South America a few days earlier.
The new approach also was unsuccessful. But officials said the president continued his personal efforts in the matter in a September 1977 meeting with Costa Rica's president and a handwritten note to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as recently as May.
While the White House argued vehemently with many of the Anderson contentions, independent reporting confirmed that there were, indeed, four South Georgians striving desperately to influence high level Carter administration officials on Vesco's behalf and later, when they had legal troubles, on their own behalf. They met with no apparent success. Much of their effort was outlined in July in articles in the Atlanta Constitution.
They aimed only for the top: Kirbo, the president's longtime friend and one-man kitchen cabinet; Jordan, Carter's closest White House aide; Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Griffin Bell, the attorney general.
Their primary vehicle was Spencer Lee IV, and Albany, Ga., lawyer and a longtime friend of Jordan.
Lee was retained by R.L. Herring, an Albany businessman now awaiting trial on unrelated racketeering charges who, in turn, had obtained promises from Vesco of millions of dollars for their efforts. Herring is also Anderson's primary source of information.
Lee said in an interview with The Washington Post that he accepted the mission and came here in February 1977 with the idea of talking to old friend Hamilton Jordan and "getting someone in the Carter administration to sit down and talk to Vesco about his problems."
But Lee said he dropped the idea after consulting with another administration friend, Richard Harden, special assistant to the president for budget and organization. Harden talked him out of his plan, Lee said, cautioning him about Vesco's reputation.
"I went up there to do it," Lee said, "but I just couldn't. Hamilton was just too good a friend of mine."
Lee did get an audience in Kirbo's Atlanta law office. But he said Kirbo refused to get involved. Another of Herring's lawyers, Fred Bartlett, succeeded in arranging a meeting with Vance, after he was nominated but before he was confirmed as Secretary of State.Vance also refused to help.
Jordan and Lee both say that they never spoke about the Vesco matter nor exchanged any correspondence about it. Anderson contended he had documentation to the contrary which, at some point, he would make available.
The original Anderson column said that Justice's "abandonment" of the extradition effort and the "removal" of Ambassador Terence Todman from Costa Rica signaled to Vesco that "the fix was in."
That set off moves that allegedly were to result in a multimillion-dollar transfer of stock from a Vesco corporation to Lee and Herring, the column said.
Administration officials said yesterday, however, that Todman - now ambassador to Spain - was promoted in January 1977, before the Georgians' approaches, not "removed" in April, as the column said.
Todman became assistant secretary of state with jurisdiction over Latin American affairs, and thus was in more of a position than ever to press for Vesco's return, he said through a spokesman.
The effort to "coordinate" an expulsion of Vesco from Costa Rica, as Civiletti suggested in the June 1977 memo endorsed by Bell and Carter, was complicated that fall by the approaching presidential election in the country, in which Vesco was an issue, officials said.
"We had it checked out legally and it didn't look promising," one State Department official said. "It would look like kidnapping . . . So we decided to wait for the election with the thought that if we didn't screw it up, he would be expelled."
New Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo had campaigned for the February election on a platform of expelling Vesco, something he pledged to do as soon as talking office May 8. Vesco fled May 5 to the Bahamas.