The Justice Department appears to be stalling on a Senate request for access to secretly recorded conversations of a reputed Mafia soldier and his associates that, according to informed sources, contain repeated references to Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan.
Senate Labor Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and the committee's ranking minority member, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), formally asked for relevant portions of the so-called "Masselli tapes" in a letter to Attorney General William French Smith on March 19.
But at this point, Hatch said, "They haven't deigned to give those to us, which bothers me a lot."
At the time of Donovan's confirmation hearings last year, the FBI made no mention of the tapes despite what was billed as an intensive and thorough investigation of Donovan's background as a New Jersey construction company executive.
Members of the Senate Labor Committee learned of the possible relevance of the tapes last summer and have been sparring with the FBI and the Justice Department over their contents since.
The recordings contain the fruits of seven months of electronic eavesdropping and wiretapping in 1979 at the South Bronx warehouse of William P. Masselli, a reputed member of the Genovese family of the Mafia.
He was the one man explicitly mentioned at Donovan's confirmation hearings in connection with allegations stemming from the New York City area that Donovan and his company, Schiavone Construction, were "mobbed up."
Donovan denied the charges and FBI officials testified they could not corroborate any of them.
Under questioning by Kennedy, the FBI's Executive Assistant Director Francis M. (Bud) Mullen Jr. said that there was "no reference to Mr. Donovan or Schiavone Construction" on the electronic surveillances the FBI had undertaken, but close examination of his testimony indicated he was speaking of such surveillances only "in New Jersey."
Months later, the FBI acknowledged picking up one mention of Donovan in a conversation between Masselli and his son Nat. Masselli was running a trucking company that had grown into a multimillion-dollar business subcontracting on New York City subway projects for Schiavone Construction and, it appeared, he had gotten an invitation to fly to some function with "Ronnie Schiavone and Ray Donovan."
At first the FBI cited an ongoing investigation and upcoming trials of Masselli as the reason for being unable to answer a flurry of followup questions that Hatch and Kennedy posed.
Then when Masselli pleaded guilty without trial last fall to reduced charges in two criminal cases unrelated to Donovan, the tapes, logs and transcripts that had been compiled at that point were quickly resealed by federal court order.
Special prosecutor Leon Silverman, a New York lawyer initially appointed in December to investigate Donovan's alleged involvement in a $2,000 labor union payoff, obtained access to the tapes weeks ago.
Sources say he apparently regarded them as important enough to build up a staff of 12 investigators for a crash program to locate any and every mention of Donovan or other Schiavone officials that might be scattered through the hundreds of recordings.
Sources say there are many references to Donovan, not necessarily incriminating references, but more than enough to make the FBI blush at its original suggestion last July that Donovan's name had popped up on only "one occasion."
FBI Director William H. Webster checked with the special prosecutor last month about the Senate request, perhaps in the expectation that Silverman would object to their release during the course of his inquiry.
Silverman, it was learned, wrote back to the FBI director April 10, saying he had no objection. Two days later, he wrote to Hatch and Kennedy to make sure they knew how he felt.
"Your review of the recordings will not, in my judgment, interfere with the pending investigation," Silverman assured them. "I have so informed the FBI and the Department of Justice."
There was no immediate comment yesterday from the FBI, which is already in the throes of an internal inquiry to determine why still other information and allegations about Donovan remained buried in the bureau's files during Senate confirmation proceedings.
A Justice Department spokesman said, however, that officials also wanted to check with the U. S. Attorney in Newark and the Criminal Division here to see if they can think of any objection to the Senate request.
Most of the tapes are now more than three years old. So far as is known, neither the U. S. Attorney's Office in Newark nor the Criminal Division here have shown any interest in the tapes before.