The Justice Department, warning of the dangers of an "inquiry by the political arm of government," set the stage yesterday for a major fight with the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee over a controversial Justice investigation of a worldwide uranium cartel.
In a U. S. District Court filing late yesterday, the Justice Department's Antitrust Division said that even if a federal judge agrees to grant the committee the right to see certain internal Justice Department documents, the departments, the department may still attempt "to claim privilege against the disclosure" of the documents.
The latest round in the dispute began last March. Justice antitrust chief John Shenefield acknowledged at subcommittee hearings then that his staff had recommeded that an 18-month investigation culminate in felony indictments against Gulf Oil Corp., and others, but that he had overruled them. Instead, he sought one misdemeanor charge against Gulg.
The antitrust staff members thought an international uranium cartel had forced world uranium prices to rise from $6 a pound to more than $40 a pound over three years, costing users $3 billion in alleged overcharges. Subcommittee chairman Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said he wanted to know what those staff members had recommeded.
But Shenefield told Metzenbarum's subcommittee that he would turn over neither the staff's recommendations nor other internal documents requested by the subcommittee because they were privileged under Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. That rule indicates that documents presented before a grand jury should be protected.
But the subcommittee, armed with new indications that pressure from the Canadian government and the U. S. State Department may have been applied on Justice to prevent felony indictments, filed suit in dederal court June 8, seeking a waiver of Rule 6 (e) to allow release of the documents. Canada was alleged to be a participant in the cartel.
In yesterday's response to that suit, however, Justice indicated that even if the court does grant such a waiver, the departments may still fight disclosure of the documents. In its filing, Justice said the subcommittee request for waiver "raises an important legal issue relating to protection afforded the grand jury processes from inquiry by the political arms of government."
When informed of the Justice response, Metzenbaum said he "resented the suggestion that they are attempting to protect the grand jury process from the political arm of the government. That is a shocking and amazing statement. How are we any more political than the executive branch?"
Metzenbaum also said his subcommittee isn't "asking for the grand jury information anyway, we are asking for the information they have in their files, whether or not they gave it to the graan jury."