Benjamin R. Civiletti, the choice to be President Carter's new attorney general, chomped on his cigar in his office yesterday and said he wouldn't have any trouble filling out the White House "report card" question on political skills.
"I'd put down NA. That question is not applicable" to us," he said.
Civiletti, the 44-year-old deputy attorney general groomed by Griffin B. Bell to be his successor, said the president specifically told him during a half-hour White House meeting yesterday to continue Bell's policy of keeping the Justice Department independent of political influence.
Thus, while the rest of the executive branch is being brought under tighter rein by new White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, it appears that Justice will remain aloof.
Civiletti said he doesn't expect to be getting any telephone calls from the White House asking that cases be prosecuted. White House political aides reportedly were furious last summer when first Bell, and then Civiletti, in the attorney general's absence refused to prosecute a Texas police officer accused of murdering a Chicano youth. But Civiletti has gotten high marks at Justice for resisting political pressure.
As a result of the Texas case, Hispanic groups might be expected to ask pointed question at Civiletti's confirmation hearings. The nominee's views on several other explosive topics - investigations of South Korean influence-buying in Congress; Bert Lance; Richard Helms; and the firing of David Marston, the Republican U.S. attorney in Philadelpha - were fully explored in lenghty hearings when Civilette became deputy attorney general last year.
Civiletti became familiar with these controversial cases - and gained Bell's confidence - as head of the criminal division. He was picked for that post at the start of the Carter administration on the advice of Charles R. Kirbo, a Carter confidant and Bell's law partner in Atlanda.
Civiletti has little of Bell's humor, as he noted at a news conference at the Justice Department yesterday.... Asked if he planned to be a Bell clone, Civiletti noted the differences: "One [himself] has no flamboyance and little humor, the other [Bell] a great sense of humor."
Civiletti is known more for his sharp legal mind. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore and was a partenr in a large Baltimore law firm before coming to Justice.
Though his government experience has been on the criminal side, he noted in an interview yesterday that he spent about 70 percent of his time as a private attorney trying civil cases.
Thus, he said, he had no great apprehension about running the whole department.
Bell will serve until Civiletti's nomination is confirmed, he said yesterday, but will not stay until the department's other top posts are filled.
U.S. District Court Judge Frederick B. Lacey of New Jersey, a Republican and former prosecutor, is said to be Bell's choice to replace Civiletti as deputy.
John Shenefield, head of the antitrust division, is expected to become associate attorney general, overseeing the civil side of the department, when Michael J. Egan leaves, this summer to return to private practice.
Civiletti's nomination was greeted with enthusiasm yesterday by many attorneys in the department because of his reputation for handling tough cases, and the continuity he brings to the job.
There was some concern about his personal staff, though, because Charles F.C. Ruff, his chief aide, is in the running to be the new U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. His other assistants are not considered as strong.