The tussle at the Senate Judiciary Committee over who should lead fresh probes into assorted Justice Department scandals continues. Now Attorney General Janet Reno has thrown a blunt object into the fight--a letter saying she won't turn over confidential documents to one stymied probe, the Justice Department task force led by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

"We are considering requests from Senator Specter for nonpublic information and access to Department officials," Reno wrote last week. "Our inquiries to date about the status of the Task Force have not resulted in any indication that the Senate or a component of the Senate that has any of the Senate's delegated oversight authority, such as your Committee, has authorized the Task Force. Without such an indication, we would have to limit what we provide to the Senator to that which we would disclose publicly."

The Specter task force had a rocky conception. Specter prevailed upon Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to name him as the head of a special task force on Waco. After Reno appointed John Danforth special counsel to investigate the FBI's raid on the Branch Davidian complex near Waco (and some pointed letters to Specter from Danforth telling him to get out of the way), Specter decided to push into broader realms at Justice he considered more important: campaign finance and Chinese espionage.

Congressional sources say the chief problems with the plan of Lott and Specter were that it effectively undercut the authority of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) as Judiciary chairman and provoked Democrats to eschew the panel as "partisan."

Specter has defended his nascent task force, saying it needs independence from the committee so he can recruit top-notch private sector lawyers. Under the committee's rules, any legislator can block a vote on a subpoena, and with suspicious Democrats hovering, Specter's attempts to get a vote on his initial subpoena over the last few weeks have failed.

It didn't engender any additional trust, congressional sources said, when Specter indicated last week that he wanted to forge ahead by issuing a subpoena to the Justice Department and then asking a court to hold the agency in contempt when it failed to comply.

Hatch urged the parties to seek a bipartisan solution before Thursday. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.),ranking Democrat on the committee, said Specter is operating in violation of Senate rules. He proposes authorizing the Judiciary Committee's criminal justice oversight subcommittee to have its membership expanded to accommodate Specter and a few other interested Republicans and Democrats.

"I have no problem with the Judiciary Committee conducting oversight of the Justice Department in an appropriate fashion that comports with Senate rules and this committee's rules," Leahy said.

WHILE WE'RE TALKING WACO, Bobby Charles has something he'd like to say on the subject. Charles, former chief counsel for the House subcommittee that conducted hearings several years ago into the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound, is aghast that the FBI only recently turned over documents he said the subcommittee requested four years ago. Charles said the earlier House probe made extremely broad requests for information.

"If we didn't get the answers, it isn't because we didn't ask the questions," Charles said.

THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT'S civil rights division bestowed its 1999 outstanding achievement awards last week on five officials: Barry H. Weinberg, deputy chief in the voting section; Gregory B. Friel, a trial attorney in the appellate section; Ellen W. Harland, an architect in the disability rights section; Nancy G. Sweesy, an analyst in the administrative management section; and Karen L. Ferguson, a civil rights analyst in the employment litigation section.

THREE PEOPLE PLEADED GUILTY last week following charges that they lured women from China, held them in slavery and forced them into prostitution in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Commonwealth located in Micronesia. Those pleading guilty were Soon Oh Kwon, president of Kwon Enterprises Inc.; Kwon's wife, Ying Yu Meng; and Kwon's son, Mo Young Kwon. "Sadly, we have seen too many cases of modern day slavery," said Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.

FROM THE FBI FILES of recently disclosed Waco documents: WEATHER UPDATE 3/27/93 has temperature in mid-70s; "MUD INDEX: Still there, Still brown."