Justice Department officials said yesterday that Billy Carter had to be pressed at a June 11 meeting with prosecutors before he acknowledged accepting money from Libya.
This contrasts sharply with Billy Carter's public statements that he volunteered the information.
The department's first public version of its dealings with the president's brother came during a news conference by Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti. He stressed that there was no White House interference in the case and he pledged to cooperate with a planned Senate investigation of Billy Carter's dealings with Libya.
Billy Carter was forced to register as a foreign agent for Libya last week after prosecutors discovered -- reportedly through intelligence sources -- that he had accepted $220,000 in payments from the regime of Libyan leader Maummar Qaddafi.
Civiletti defended the department's handling of the case, although he had criticized its slowness in late May. He said there was no indication that anyone in the White House or anywhere else warned Carter that Justice knew of the payments. It has been reported that prosecutors felt confident of their evidence on June 2, and that Carter called suddenly for an appointment about the case June 10.
Civiletti said he felt a warning to Carter wouldn't be considered an obstruction of justice. In fact, he said, "It probably would be in furtherance of justice," because the purpose of the registration act is public disclosure of foreign sponsors.
He added, however, that he felt that it would be improper for anyone especially a White House aide, to warn the subject of any investigation about what the prosecutors knew.
Civiletti said that since the Watergate scandal the Justict Department has demonstrated that it "investigates and prosecutes without fear or favor." He said his investigators pursued the Billy Carter matter "doggedly and independently, and then took action without regard to who the individual was."
He said, "the department has nothing whatsoever to hide with regard to this investigation, and I don't think anyone else does either.
"I don't think talk of a special prosecutor or special this or that is anything more than specultion and hyperbole, because no one is saying they can't have the facts."
Civiletti had the prosecutors who directly supervised the case on hand to answer questions. Philip B. Heymann, head of the criminal division, said that he met with several veteran prosecutors in his office and concluded that a criminal case against Carter wasn't warranted because his possible defenses made a conviction chancy.
Heymann noted that the law requires proof that Carter was acting at the request or direction of a foreign government. Both Heymann and Joel Lisker, head of the foreign registration unit, said that Carter made no secret of his close ties to Libyans, but did conceal the payments.
In his registration statement, Carter said he got a $20,000 payment from the Libyans in January, about the time he was first interviewed by the FBI. He said nothing about the payment then, but Justice has no proof he lied then, Heymann said.
When he was interviewed the second time, on June 11, Heymann said, "After a little bit of pressing he acknowledged receipt of the money."
Carter told reporters earlier this week that he was the first person to tell Justice about his Libyan money. He claimed then that he had cooperated in the investigation.
Deputy Attorney General Charles B. Renfrew said in a recent interview, however, that it was Carter's lack of cooperation that led the department to file its complaint against him, rather than to simply let him register without the accompanying Justice charges.