Setting the stage for a court battle, the Justice Department yesterday rejected a Senate request for grand jury records involving allegations that fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco tried to bribe associates of President Carter.
The material in question was subpoenaed last year by federal grand jury here investigating the alleged bribes, which were said to have been intended to halt efforts to extradite and prosecute Vesco. No indictments were returned as a result of the probe.
The rejection led to a denunciation of the department by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee with two missions: to investigate possible ties between the administration and Vesco, and to assess the performance of the department's Public Integrity Section. Both are potentially quite sensitive during the presidential campaign.
DeConcini said he was forced to conclude that the department "is motivated by a desire to protect from public scrutiny the possible involvement by administration officials in various bribery schemes. I come to this conclusion reluctantly, but ineluctably, given the consistent refusal of the department to be forthcoming in this and related matters."
He issued the statement a few hours after getting a hand-delivered letter in which Assistant Attorney General Philip B. Heymann wrote that there is "some question" whether the records could be supplied without permission of the U.S. District Court here.
To resolve the question, Heymann, who heads the department's Criminal Division, suggested that the full committee file a motion in the court for disclosure, "in the event that these subpoenaed documents are essential" to the subcommittee's inquiry.
DeConcini, in the statement, said that the committee "is prepared to go to court immediately to vindicate its rights." But, in a pointed allusion to the possibility that a court fight could delay disclosure until after the November elections, he said that the department "is fully aware that such an avenue will be time-consuming."
DeConcini and the Republican senator conducting the subcommittee inquiries with him, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, after prolonged negotiations reached an agreement with the department on the grand jury-related materials it would provide from the Public Integrity Section's closed cases, including Vesco's.
Then, in a joint Aug. 6 Letter to Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, the two senators, seeking "to ensure that there are no misunderstandings as to the scope of the materials we expect to receive," set out their view of the grand jury materials to be supplied.
The letter relied on a decision handed down a year ago by U.S. District Court Chief Judge William B. Bryant on the right of the Judiciary Committe to receive all of the department's documents pertaining to an antitrust investigation it made of the uranium industry.
Bryant's decision "followed the established rule, which we are sure the department is familiar, that grand jury secrecy applies only to proceedings of the grand jury and not to documents subpoenaed by the grand jury and materials of that kind," DeConcini and Hatch wrote.
"This rule, of course, applies fully to our request, and we would expect that request to be similarly treated by the department," the senators added. Inviting Civiletti to cite legal precedents for his own understanding, they suggested he reply by last Monday.
Yesterday, responding for Civiletti, Heymann said that Bryant's opinion "is not really clear" as to whether the materials subpoenaed for the Vesco investigation -- by a grand jury that reported to the same judge -- could be made available without Bryant's permission.
Hatch, saying he is "sick and tired of the foot-dragging of the Justice Department," told a reporter, "If they have nothing to hide, then there should be no reason why we should not have those exhibits."
In a related development yesterday, the subcommittee had a 2 1/2-hour closed session in which it heard Ralph E. Ulmer, the grand jury's foreman, testify about how its 18-month investigation was led by a succession of prosecutors, including Thomas H. Henderson Jr., former chief of the Public Integrity Section.
Ulmer tried to resign in August 1979, charging in a letter to Bryant that the department has put numerous obstructions in the path of the grand jury's investigation into charges -- made originally by columnist Jack Anderson -- involving certain White House advisers in an alleged $10 million conspiracy attempt to free Vesco from his Bahamian refuge and lift indictments pending against him.
The judge rejected the proffered resignation, copies of which Ulmer gave to reporters. Yesterday, DeConcini said, Ulmer "made a very good case to have the records given to the subcommittee that were given to the grand jury."
Heymann, while acknowledging that the grand jury investigation was troubled by changes in prosecutors and some administration foul-ups, insisted that it had been "absolutely rigorous and quite exceptionally probing."
Henderson, who in August 1979 had "strongly urged" that his responsibilities be reassigned, has vehemently denied all allegations of possible unprofessional conduct.