The congressional committee that inherited Rep. Leo J. Ryan's investigation of the Peoples Temple has plans for a far-reaching inquiry covering the past, present and future of the cult, including its members, its money and its relations with U.S. and Guyanese officials.
The House International Relations Committee also plans to focus on whether and how the U.S. government can use the church's assets to reimburse the Treasury for costs incurred in bringing home survivors and bodies from the church's Jonestown colony in Guyana.
Some committee members also hope to compile a roster of U.S. cults operating abroad, although constitutional protections may limit this phase of the inquiry.
Preliminary planning by the four staff members working full time on the inquiry indicates that the committee will convene public hearings next year to create a detailed record, based on eyewitness testimony, of life and the mass death of more than 900 persons at Jonestown.
This plan still has to be approved by Chairman Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), who has pledged to complete the investigation begun by Ryan, who was murdered by followers of the cult after touring Jonestown two weeks ago. But Zablocki has put off a decision on whether to hold public hearings.
The Justice Department is conducting a multifaceted investigation of the Jonestown tragedy and the Peoples Temple.
At the request of the State Department, Justice's civil division is investigating the financial structure of the church.
Justice's criminal division and the FBI are pursuing the Ryan killing, armed with eight sealed arrest warrants obtained a few days after the Nov. 18 murder just in case any of the suspects were still alive. All of the eight are thought to be dead (five have been confirmed dead), according to department sources.
The FBI is also investigating charges that a Peoples Temple "hit list" existed of public officials and dissident temple members to be murdered in the event of a crisis. One bureau source said yesterday that there is "every indication that there was a very loose" assassination plan.
George Berdes, the committee staff member directing the initial phase of the House investigation, says the staff has had difficulty narrowing its inquiry because "all these things about the members of the church, its money, its dealings with the governments, are tangled in a knotted sort of way."
However, the committee plans to concentrate on a few specific issues: relations between the U.S. embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, and the cult, the embassy's handling of complaints about Jonestown, and the adequacy of the information the embassy gave Ryan (D-Calif.) before his fatal trip.
The committee also will look into the colony's relationship with the Guyanese government to determine whether the Guyanese withheld information that might have warned the embassy or Ryan about the danger to his expedition.
At the urging of several members of Congress, the committee staff is also investigating the possibility of reimbursement for federal expenses resulting from the massacre. Several members of Congress said yesterday that the most emphatic point in constitutent mail on the tragedy is a demand that the government get its costs back from the church.
"That one takes you into tougher questions," Berdes said, "Like who the church is now, and there the money is, and how much, and can you legally seize a church's assets?"
Rep. Dante B. Fascell (Fla.), the committee's third-ranking Democrat, has expressed interest in a probe of other U.S. religious colonies overseas. Some sociologists have theorized that there may be hundreds of religious sects with settlements in foreign countries.
Berdes said the committee will try to compile a list of such colonies, but he noted that constitutional protections of privacy and religious freedom might prevent investigations of the groups' activities.
Meanwhile, the State Department yesterday strenuously defended the conduct of Richard McCoy, the career diplomat now posted in Washington who served as chief consular officer in Guyana during most of Jonestown's existence.
According to internal Peoples Temple documents obtained by the Associated Press, temple leaders thought they had a special relationship with McCoy. During his tenure, the documents indicated, temple head Jim Jones would get advance lists of the Jonestown residents the consulate wished to interview regarding complaints of abuse at the camp, allowing Jones to coach them in their responses.
McCoy's boss at the time, John Blacken, former deputy chief of the U.S. embassy in Guyana, explained in an interview yesterday that the names were provided to Jones in order to guarantee the availability of those to be interviewed by U.S. officials.
Blacken said that on officials' first visits to Jonestown for interviews, Jones would often say that the subjects were unavailable or on boat trips to Georgetown.
"We provided the names so he wouldn't have an excuse" for not producing the people, Blacken said.
A State Department spokesman said yesterday that the department had "carefully investigated the personal conduct and professional performance of Mr. McCoy" and that so far the results showed that he "performed his duties in a manner completely consonant with the highest standards of professional competence and ethical behavior."