The White House disclosed yesterday that President Carter was informed 19 months ago of a plan by a Georgia lawyer to intercede with top administration aides on behalf of fugitive financier Robert Vesco.
Presidential assistant Richard Harden, who said he believed at the time that the plan had been dropped, told Carter on Feb. 15, 1977, that Albany, Ga., attorney W. Spencer Lee IV had been "offered a large sum of money" to arrange a meeting between top presidential adviser Hamilton Jordan and Vesco representatives. Vesco was in Gosta Rica at the time, struggling to avoid standing trial in the United States on five longstanding criminal charges.
Deputy press secretary Rex Granum said yesterday that the president has no independent recollection of the meeting in whihc Harden said he informed him of the matter.
The president did not order an investigation, Granum said Carter informed Harden that any further contacts on the subject should be handled exclusively by the Justice Department.
Then, in Harden's presence, the president wrote a terse note to Attorney General Griffin B. Bell asking him to see Lee, if the Georgia lawyer should request such a meeting, Granum said.
"Please see Spencer Lee from Albany when he requests an appointment," the note said, according to Granum. It was initialed "J.C."
Granum was asked why Carter had not seen the need for a criminal investigation or for informing the Justice Department of the nature of Lees discussion with Harden.
He said that he could only speculate that since Harden believed Lee had dropped the scheme, neither he nor the president thought anything illegal had occurred.
The Justice Department started an investigation several months ago into whether the approaches by Vesco associates to the administration were improper. Officials said last night that Carter will have to be questioned by the FBI about his note to Bell.
Bell said in a telephone interview last night that he never saw the note, though it was found in Justice Department files last week after a White House query.
The attorney general added that Lee had never asked for an appointment, and the president never asked him what happened to Lee's expected query on Vesco's behalf.
Terry Adamson, a Bell spokesman, said later that the note would have been considered as a request for a job interview.
The White House had contended that the president knew nothing of the Lee approach or the Vesco matter until the story broke.
Harden, in an interview with The Washington Post on Sept. 8, made no mention of contacting the president. "I didn't think it was germane," Harden said last night when asked why he didn't disclosed the conversation.
Granum said Harden's Feb. 15, 1977, conversation with the president was discovered only last week, on Sept. 11, after a Post inquiry about Hardens actions. The Justice Department was immediately informed, Granum said.
But the White House made no public disclosure until yesterday, after learning that Lee had made the disclosure in an amendment to sworn testimony he gave in New York last week.
Lee has confirmed in interviews and sworn testimony that he came to Washington on Feb. 7, 1977, with the intention of contacting Jordan about the Vesco matter for a fee of $1 million. Lee had been hired by R. L. Herring, an Albany, Ga., businessman with ties to Vesco, because of Lee's longstanding friendship with Jordan.
But both Lee and Jordan have said that the two never discussed the Vesco approach or exchanged any correspondence on the subject.
Lee did visit another old friend, Harden, at the White House on Feb. 8, Granum said yesterday. At a private dinner that evening, Harden said Lee told him of his plan to contact orden about Vesco.
"During dinner, Lee told Harden that people involved with Vesco had offered him a large sum of money to arrange a meeting with Jordan," Granum said.
Harden told Granum that he cautioned Lee against the idea, saying it would be dangerous both for Lee and the administration.Lee informed Harden that he would drop it.
"Lee asked Harden to tell the president of the approach by the Vesco people," Granum said yesterday, to assure the president that Lee had rejected the plant.
Harden, who is special assiatant for budget and organization, met with the president for four or five minutes on Feb. 15, 1977, Granum said. Although Carter has no recollection of the meeting, Harden did recall describing to the president his conversation with Lee about Vesco, Granum said.
"Harden says that once, he explained the situation to the president, the president said that Lee had done the right thing and that anything further should be dealt with by Justice directly, without White House involvement," Granum said.
The Carter note to Bell was discovered Sept. 11 in the files of J. Michael Kelly, the attorney general's top personal aide, spokesman Adamson said. The note also was recorded as having been received in Bell's office log of presidential correspondence.
But it had been delivered before Kelly arrived at Justice and never got to bell, Adamson said. "He [Bell] writes on everything he gets. And there was nothing on the note."
Securities and Exchange Commission attorneys who questioned Lee under oath last Friday in New York learned of the new information the next day when Lee called to "say he had forgotten to include something he thought was important," according to SEC enforcement chief Stanley Sporkin.
Sporkin said last night that he and Gregory Glynn, the attorney handling the Vesco case, told Lee "he ought to send us an affidavit to correct his testimony."