A festering partisan battle over the governance of the Northern Mariana Islands erupted anew this week, as a House committee claimed it had unearthed evidence that a federal official with responsibility for the U.S. territory had illegally tried to launch political attacks against top House Republicans.

The House Resources Committee served subpoenas on Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt; David North, public affairs officer for Interior's Office of Insular Affairs; and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. One of the subpoenas demanded the delivery of North's computer by today.

House GOP sources said the committee has acquired documents showing that North, while working at his office computer, contacted the DCCC and offered to provide negative information about Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). Each of these lawmakers has resisted Democratic efforts to more tightly regulate the islands' economy.

The Hatch Act prohibits government employees from participating in political activity on the job or using their office for partisan purposes; penalties range from a 30-day suspension to removal from office.

North declined to comment on the probe yesterday, and House Democrats said Republicans were unfairly trying to intimidate bureaucrats with whom they have disagreed over policy. North's office has been at odds for years with House Republican leaders over the governance of the tiny archipelago in the western Pacific, the site of several garment factories.

Under a 1976 "covenant" with the United States, the Northern Marianas sets its own minimum wage -- which is now $3.05 -- and imports tens of thousand of foreign guest workers. Human rights and labor groups have urged the Justice Department to curb the trafficking and abuse of foreign workers on the islands, as well as investigate whether DeLay improperly used his post to block reform laws aimed at the Marianas.

Republicans, who support the commonwealth's free-market policies, have asked why Democrats are trying the change a system that has brought economic prosperity to the islands. And the Washington lobbying firm of the Northern Marianas government, Preston, Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, has targeted the Office of Insular Affairs for its employees' outspoken criticism of working conditions on the islands.

Just this week DeLay -- who has traveled with his wife and daughter to the Northern Marianas at the commonwealth government's expense -- praised the commonwealth's economic policies in a speech before a group of Native American leaders.

"Their society was almost totally destroyed. And then they decided they'd had enough," DeLay told the group Wednesday afternoon. "Of course, the libs around this building are trying to destroy it again."

Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) sent a memo to committee Republicans Wednesday justifying the subpoena of North, saying circumstances "required the immediate securing of some evidence, so that no tampering can occur."

But the committee's top Democrat, Rep. George Miller (Calif.), said the panel's latest subpoenas, which were issued without a formal vote, are part of the GOP's larger pattern of intimidating federal bureaucrats.

"It's a way to run roughshod over individuals in government agencies that these people disagree with," Miller said, adding that he was not sure whether the employee in question had violated the law. "Even if there's some wrongdoing here, they go about ferreting out that wrongdoing in a capricious and arbitrary way."

Though Interior officials are required to respond to Young's subpoena today, the department's solicitor, John D. Leshy, has indicated that he believes requesting an employee's computer falls outside the scope of the House's powers.

"We have some problems with the extremely broad nature of the committee's request, but are working aggressively to comply with their tight deadline," said Danny Aranza, acting director of the Office of Insular Affairs. "At this point, these are just allegations." He said the agency has asked the department's inspector general to investigate this matter.

CAPTION: A House panel says David North of Interior's Office of Insular Affairs tried to launch political attacks against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), left, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.).