Confidential information that Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) inadvertently revealed at a House subcommittee hearing last November was deleted from the published transcript of that hearing at Edwards' request, raising fresh charges from Republicans that Democrats take more than the permitted liberties in preparing hearing documents for publication.
Edwards deleted statements critical of Irvin Nathan, a key Justice Department official in the Abscam investigation, because "that was information we had agreed we would not release." The information was provided to members of Edwards' staff at a briefing with Justice Department officials on the condition that it be kept confidential.
Edwards was provided the information by a staff member who did not tell him that it was not to be revealed. Told of the error after the hearing, Edwards moved immediately to apologize to Justice officials and to delete the incriminating information from the official record.
According to the material Edwards released, Nathan, a deputy assistant attorney general, tried to silence criticism of the Abscam investigation from local U.S. attorneys involved in it in New Jersey. When this failed, Edwards revealed, disciplinary action was initiated against them. In the end, an internal Justice investigation backed the attorneys and sharply criticized Nathan's actions.
The change in the transcript was discovered by Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (R-N.M.), who brought it to the attention of the House in a floor speech Wednesday, calling it "another blatant example of an official record being altered."
The instance brings to five the number of incidents in which Republicans charge that Democrats or Democratic staff members have exceeded their authority and altered House documents in misleading and impermissible ways.
The ethics committee is investigating charges that statements made by seven Republicans at joint subcommittee hearings last summer were changed without their permission in ways that make them seem foolish or ill-informed.
The most recent three allegations involve cases in which Democratic members of the House admit to changing documents, but argue that it was within their purview to do so.
One is the Edwards matter. Another involves an amendment that was fleshed out by Democratic staff members in a manner they argue was technical and Republicans charge was substantive. The third involves the omission of pages from a document presented as an exhibit at an intelligence committee hearing last spring.
The rules on altering House documents are vague. According to the House parliamentarian's office, members are permitted "to revise and extend" remarks they make on the floor. That is "a broad authority," according to a spokesman for the parliamentarian's office, "and the way individual members construe it is up to them."
There are no specific rules governing the polishing of transcripts of House committee and subcommittee hearings, according to the parliamentarian's office. Each committee operates by its own rules.
In general, members or their staffs correct the grammar, style and syntax of remarks, but cannot alter the substance of what was said.
In the changes authorized by Edwards, criticism of Nathan that was related at the hearing Nov. 23, 1982, was deleted from the record.
Edwards explained the change in an interview yesterday, saying that the information had been obtained by his staff from the Justice Department only on the condition that it not be made public. He said that he had revealed it inadvertently.
"When it came time to write the permanent transcript," Edwards said, "I authorized the staff to make certain changes. The substance is there. There is no difference in the substance.
"It was the right thing to do, the appropriate thing to do. And our friends in the Republican Party are trying to divert attention from the Carter briefing book matter," Edwards said.
Lujan said in an interview yesterday that Edwards' changes "clearly are not permitted. Under the rules of the House, you are permitted to revise and extend, not to expunge material, but to correct the grammatical form."
Lujan brushed aside Edwards' protest that the material should never have been revealed. "If some official is guilty of malfeasance, why should that be classified?" he asked.
Lujan said that Edwards' instance was "just another example of committee staffs altering documents," and he called for a special committee to investigate all of the alterations "with a view toward a change in the rules of the House as it applies to revising and extending our remarks--to just eliminate that authority."