The Senate ethics committee said yesterday it has asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to conduct a "complete investigation" of leaks to newspapers of "sensitive documents" in its probe of the links between five senators and former savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr.

The Select Committee on Ethics was turning to the GAO, Congress's investigative agency, because "some of these disclosures may have come from the committee itself," the panel said in announcing the probe.

The committee also noted that lawyers for the five senators were advised that disclosure of documents was prohibited when they received them several weeks ago.

Democrats, including Chairman Howell T. Heflin (Ala.), made an issue of unauthorized disclosure of documents after Republicans complained Monday that the panel was dragging its heels in exonerating the only Republican in the case, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Brushing aside the recommendation of its special counsel, the committee decided Tuesday to hold hearings starting Nov. 15 on all five senators, who have been accused of intervening improperly on behalf of Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan in California.

Special counsel Robert S. Bennett had recommended that the committee drop proceedings against McCain and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) but intensify its probe of the other three: Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.).

In an angry floor speech, Heflin charged that there was an "organized campaign of leaks" aimed at discrediting Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle and gaining "some advantage for some cause or person to which the leakers are partisan."

In its statement yesterday, the committee did not say what it would do when and if it found out who leaked the documents, which were obtained by Bennett and distributed to the five senators and their lawyers. But it observed that it is against committee rules, and by implication the ethics rules of the Senate, to disclose sensitive information because the "release of incomplete or misleading information can unfairly damage or irreparably harm a person's reputation."

The panel added that it "will not speculate upon motives but does observe that such conduct discredits the individuals responsible and violates the committee's rules."

There are no automatic sanctions for unauthorized disclosure of ethics documents; disciplinary action would be up to the committee and the Senate, if serious sanctions are proposed.