The Justice Department has been conducting a broad search for both people and methods to handle the investigation into the Carter family peanut business and the loans it received from the National Bank of Georgia.
Top officials declined to say yesterday whether they had reached a final decision but there were signs that they were considering recruiting a special new team of lawyers from inside the department to conduct the sensitive inquiry.
The major question - who will oversee the probe - is expected to be answered today by Attorney General Griffin B. Bell. Deputy Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti said yesterday that the options include appointment of a "special counsel" from outside the department or of someone like a U.S. attorney, who works for the department but is not part of the hierarchy.
The department has held discussions on the subject with possibilities from both categories. Robert B. Fiske Jr., U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said yesterday that he had been approached by Assistant Attorney General Philip Heymann but declined to say whether he had been offered the job. Two prominent outsiders, former housing secretary Carla Hills and former New York deputy mayor Robert Price have also reportedly held discussions with Heymann.
All three are Republicans, a factor apparently considered important, for appearances' sake, by top Justice Department officials.
In addition to these developments, Bill Harper, a former Georgia associate of President Carter and currently an Atlanta-based U.S. attorney, said yesterday that Heymann asked him late last week if he could provide a member of his prosecutorial staff to be part of an investigative team on the Carter warehouse matter. Harper said he declined the request because of his close relationship with Carter.
"It would have looked like I was trying to play some management role" in the investigation, Harper said.
The investigation stemmed from a far more advanced inquiry into possible banking law violations by Bert Lance's National Bank of Georgia. During the course of that inquiry, which is now complete, investigators began looking into millions of dollars in NBG loans to the Carter peanut business and raised questions about whether the handling of those loans involved any breaches of banking laws.
Weeks ago, the Justice Department decided to handle that matter separately. But the question of how it should be managed has become one of the more agonizing issues to be faced by the department, especially in light of increasing pressure from Republican members of Congress for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Bell, Heymann and Civiletti told Republicans two weeks ago that they appreciated the need to appear unbiased in the conduct of probes involving the president or his family. At the same time, they said they were generally opposed to the use of outsiders to handle cases whenever anything sensitive came up.
In an interview last week, Civiletti said it was "terrible to get caught up in a situation where the Justice Department is forced to respond to little pieces of outside pressure to turn a case over to an individual instead of to the institution.
"If we set a trend for handling such cases outside the department, then it [the department] really does begin to disintegrate from an administration of justice standpoint," Civiletti said. "... We will have little Justice Departments here, there and everywhere. We could have justice depending on how loud people scream."