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Inside Politics

Former Senate staffers faulted in memo leaks

Criminal probe possible

By Steve Turnham
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. Patrick Leahy, right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch brief reporters at a press conference on Thursday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch brief reporters at a press conference on Thursday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two former Republican staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee may have broken the law when they downloaded thousands of computer files with information about Democratic strategies in the partisan tug-of-war over judicial nominations, according to the results of an investigation by the Senate sergeant-at-arms released Thursday.

Some committee Democrats are calling for a special counsel to investigate the breach, and its Republican chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who employed the staffers, said "odds are" that the matter may be referred to prosecutors.

"I am mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files occurred," Hatch said. "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."

The committee will meet in executive session next week to decide what action should be taken, including whether the information should be referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.

But one of the staffers involved, Manuel Miranda -- who resigned from the staff of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, earlier this year when the information about the documents came to light -- said he would not mind a criminal probe.

"I am worried about absolutely nothing, and at least if it were to go to a criminal investigation, it would go to the hands of adults," he said.

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

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

Hatch stopped short of calling the staffers' actions criminal, but the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said their actions amounted to theft.

"There is much in the report that is new, it's incriminating, it's revealing about the stealing of these computer files," he said. "The evidence unequivocally confirms that some Republican staff conspired to spy on and steal from their Democratic colleagues."

"I feel it is not difficult to conclude that this was criminal."

Hatch said "it is not a foregone conclusion that this will go to a prosecutor ... but odds are it will."

In the wake of Thursday's report, Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Charles Schumer, D-New York, called for appointment of a special counsel to investigate.

"There's a general bipartisan consensus that the report is a fair and down-the-middle document, but there is no consensus as to where we go from here," Schumer said. "A few of us believe that the only way to the bottom of this is for a special counsel to be appointed."

Kennedy, whose files were among those accessed, called the 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, contend the content of the memos is more important than how they were obtained, charging that they show Democrats were colluding with outside interest groups to develop strategies to block President 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 Republican committee staff, discovered that it was possible to access the Democratic memos in the fall of 2001, and he downloaded 4,670 files into his computer.

Miranda, who was 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, although 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.

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