Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, citing a possible "appearance of impropriety," said yesterday that his chief deputy and several assistants have removed themselves from any further part in the sale of America's land and weather satellites.
For the past nine months Deputy Secretary Guy Fiske has been the overseer of a Commerce Department debate over a proposal by the Comsat Corp. to buy the nation's land and weather satellites.
Yesterday Baldrige said Comsat representatives had talked with Fiske about a job offer at least three times while Fiske was in charge of the departmental debate.
Baldrige made the disclosure before a joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
The administration's decision to sell the satellites has stirred controversy among weather scientists and businessmen and on Capitol Hill. Some have said the proposal could threaten the quality of weather data and cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars a year in subsidies to any company that buys the satellites.
Baldrige said yesterday that his deputy made no policy decisions on the satellite sale.
"Believe me, all the policy decisions were mine," he said.
But Baldrige said that when Fiske told him of the job offers from Comsat he asked for Fiske, Assistant Deputy Secretary Michael Bayer and their office staff members to sign letters taking themselves out of any further part in the satellite sale "to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."
The Commerce Department's general counsel "determined that at least the possibility of the appearance of impropriety existed, with which I obviously agreed," Baldrige said.
Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), who chaired the hearings, said Fiske's role was only part of a long pattern in which Comsat gained a pipeline of information into, and private meetings with, Commerce Department officials that no other company or even Congress had during the decision-making on the satellite proposals.
Baldrige said the policy to sell the nation's weather satellites originated with the Office of Management and Budget. OMB decided to cut from the budget any future land-sensing satellites, hoping that private companies would buy them and make a business of providing data to mineral- and oil-exploring companies. But no companies expressed interest.
There was one other option, however: the government might offer to sell the weather satellites along with the land satellites. The government, as the only major customer for raw weather data, would guarantee to buy hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weather data annually for as many as 10 years.
This guarantee, plus some possible additional subsidies, got at least one company, Comsat, interested enough to propose to buy the satellites.
Scheuer yesterday showed Baldrige one Commerce Department policy draft statement that had lifted passages whole from a Comsat report. He also revealed memos showing that Comsat representatives were given a chance to meet privately with government officials who had raised doubts about the Comsat proposal.
In April, 1982, the Cabinet Council on Commerce and Trade rejected the idea of selling the weather satellites, chiefly because of national security concerns, Baldrige said. The weather satellites are used as a backup to the nation's defense weather satellites.
But Baldrige said he felt private industry should have another chance to "thrash it out" with intelligence officials. So Baldrige said he arranged a meeting between Comsat representatives and intelligence officials, with no other companies present.
In December the Cabinet Council decided in a confidential meeting to reverse itself and recommend approval of the sale. Scheuer said an unknown party notified Comsat officials of the decision immediately afterward. A Comsat representative quickly sent a memo to Fiske's assistant, Michael Bayer, outlining the next steps to be taken and how they should be carried out.
On March 8, President Reagan ordered the Commerce Department to go ahead and sell the satellites if an appropriate bid were made.
Of all the traffic between Comsat and the Commerce Department, Baldrige said there was nothing improper in such lobbying, and added: "You can't blame them for trying."