Wags around the Justice Department are saying Griffin B. Bell got out of town just in time.
Benjamin R. Civiletti, his handpicked successor, has spent his second week in office trying to cope with a swirl of stories that have all the rhetoric of Watergate: talk of cover-ups and special prosecutors and doubts about the integrity of high White House officials and Justice.
In rapid succession in the past week have come news reports of alleged cocaine used by White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, the attempted resignation of a federal grand jury foreman charging a cover-up to protect White House aides and an ABC-TV news report that implied top officials at Justice were lying when they said U.S. intelligence had not bugged U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young's apartment.
The chain of events has left some department officials wondering how they can prove their purity in the post-Watergate environment.
Philip B. Heymann, who as head of the department's Criminal Division has directed several sensitive investigations touching friends of the Carter administration, said yesterday, "I feel sometimes like saying 'I am not a crook,' but President Nixon has made all those words cheap and laughable."
Civeletti, interviewed by phone at a West Virginia resort where he had made a speech, was, as usual, unflappable. "We handle these cases one at a time, whatever the law happens to be," he said.
"I'm not disgruntled or in any sense frustrated. As time goes on, it'll be proved that the interests of justice have been served."
Civiletti noted the charge against Jordan had been made by two defendants in "severe jeopardy," called the grand jury foreman's cover-up charge "absurd" and labeled the ABC report "untrue."
He added that such charges are not confined to Washington, citing a West Virginia public corruption case that ended with a conviction and a claim that the prosecution was politically motivated.
"There will always be people who make allegations with motivations people should be skeptical of," he said. "People in the department have to keep their reason, their common sense, and do their job."
Heyman agreed, but said he does get "irritable" when questions are raised about his ability and that of his prosecutors to investigate cases involving political figures.
He said there are two potential sources of pressure on him and his attorneys: his superiors, including the White House, and "nuts, newshounds and adventurers who want to hang important political figures."
"There's never been a word from the White House or a messenger from the administration, and we've handled a dozen cases or so that swirl around the Democratic Party and friends and associates of the president," he said.
In the past year or so, federal grand juries have indicted Carter friends Bert Lance, who is coming to trial, and Smith Bagley, who has been acquitted. The department also has handed off an investigation of loans to the Carter family peanut warehouse to an independent special counsel, Paul Curran, and has been checking allegations that Billy Carter served as a foreign agent for Libya.
Bell went through a cycle of cases in early 1978 that led to mutterings of dissatisfaction: the firing of Republican prosecutor David Marston; the plea agreement with CIA Director Richard Helms over a potential perjury charge involving congressional testimony; the refusal to indict an FBI official for perjury and the sparse results from a long investigation of South Korean influence-buying in Congress. All were criticized in some circles.
Heymann, who joined the department in mid-1978 from Harvard Law School, said his job is to make sure that when such sensitive investigations are completed, "they be called fairly."
"I have an obligation to make sure no one is tried who shouldn't be," he said. "Therefore I am vulnerable when someone asks why a case isn't brought. I have the answer, 'because we never got the evidence.' That doesn't mean there was a cover-up."
Ralph E. Ulmer, the grand jury foreman who tried to resign last week from an investigation of alleged approaches to Carter aides by Robert Vesco, may have taken a Heymann remark last month as a sign of cover-up. Sources said that Heymann mentioned that prosecutors had questions about the testimony of White House aide Richard M. Harden and wondered whether the special prosecutor act should be triggered.
Heymann decided the act did not apply and assigned the case to a new investigative team. After Ulmer's charge, the New York Times reported, and Heymann denied, that the criminal division chief said Harden apparently committed perjury.
When the cover-up allegation by Ulmer was first made public, Heymann said: "I think we'll be wrestling with how to handle this kind of allegation for a long time. All we can do is carry an investigation through and decide the right disposition, whichever way it goes."