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Leahy: Justice Department to probe leaked files

Report said GOP staffers accessed Democratic memos

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The top federal prosecutor in New York will lead an investigation into whether computer files of Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats were accessed improperly, the panel's leading Democrat said Monday.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said the Justice Department had assigned acting U.S. Attorney David Kelley in Manhattan to pursue the politically sensitive case in which Republicans gained access to confidential Democratic files.

An investigation by the Senate sergeant-at-arms, released March 4, reported that two members of the committee's Republican staff might have broken the law when they downloaded more than 4,600 Democratic computer files. (Full story)

The memos from 2001 to 2003 dealt in large part with Democratic strategies in the partisan tug-of-war over President Bush's nominations of federal judges, which must go through the Judiciary Committee.

The Justice Department would not confirm Leahy's statement and said Kelley's New York office would have no comment.

A representative of the committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, also had no comment. The two staff members, who have since resigned, worked for Hatch.

"I am mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files occurred," Hatch said last month when the sergeant-at-arms' report was released. "There is no excuse to justify these improper actions.

"None of us would walk into another person's office and take papers from their desk, and this is, in a sense, exactly that."

At one point in March, a bipartisan majority of the committee was reported leaning toward asking the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor, but Hatch said the committee was later unable to agree.

Hatch said he referred the matter to William Pickle, the Senate sergeant-at-arms, to decide.

Leahy has led Democratic complaints, repeatedly denouncing what he called "theft" of the files and demanding a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

"This is a serious matter that deserves and requires careful investigation. The Senate sergeant-at-arms made a good start with his investigation and report," Leahy said.

"With the powers available to a federal prosecutor this matter can now be more thoroughly investigated so that those who engaged in criminal conduct may be brought to justice."

One of the staff members involved, Manuel Miranda, resigned from the staff of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee when the information about the documents became known earlier in the year.

In his resignation letter, Miranda insisted he violated no laws because no unauthorized hacking was involved and none of the documents were confidential or classified.

"My interest was solely in nominations-related documents to learn when hearings would be held so that we could prepare," Miranda said.

Committee member Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose files were among those accessed, called Pickle's report "a startling and disturbing document" that "leaves as many questions unanswered as it answers."

But conservative groups, such as the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, contended the content of the memos was more important than how they were obtained, charging they showed Democrats were colluding with outside interest groups to develop strategies to block Bush's judicial nominations.

"There's a level of collusion going on that they do not want the American public to understand," said Kay Daly, president of the coalition. "They are trying their darn best to change the subject as to how these memos got out there."

According to the sergeant-at-arms' report, Jason Lundell, a clerk on the committee's Republican staff, discovered it was possible to access the Democratic memos in the fall of 2001, and he downloaded 4,670 files into his computer.

Miranda, hired in December 2001 as the GOP's counsel for judicial nominations, suggested to Lundell which of the Democratic files to concentrate on "and would sometimes tell him that there was something new in a particular folder and ask the clerk to print it for him," the report said.

"When Mr. Lundell printed out documents, he would either hand them to Mr. Miranda or leave them in Mr. Miranda's top desk drawer," the report said.

According to the report, no other committee staffers accessed files, though their content was widely known among the Republican staff.

Miranda eventually left the Judiciary Committee staff and went to work for Frist, where his job was to handle the often-contentious issue of federal appellate court nominations.

During that time, the documents were given to reporters, as well as outside interest groups working to secure the appointment of conservative judges.

Journalists who received the documents would not reveal their sources, but several Capitol Hill staffers identified Miranda as the source of the leak, according to the report.

CNN's Terry Frieden and Steve Turnham contributed to this article.

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