Walsh: ready for court. Charges against North and three others in Iran-contra network are expected this week

A federal grand jury this week is expected to indict four people involved in the Iran-contra affair, according to a high administration source and others familiar with the investigation. The long-awaited indictments would open a new, public chapter in the biggest scandal of the Reagan administration. The charges, however, are not expected to contain any ``bombshells'' that would greatly damage the President or even the vice-president, according to those familiar with the investigation.

The indictments would follow on the heels of the guilty plea of Robert McFarlane, the first person to admit criminal conduct in the Iran-contra affair while a member of the Reagan administration.

Mr. McFarlane served as the President's national-security adviser when the arms sales to Iran were initiated. He was also instrumental in funneling secret aid to the Nicaraguan contras at a time when such aid was prohibited by Congress in the Boland amendment. On Friday, he pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges that he withheld information from Congress, and faces a maximum penalty of four years in prison and a fine of $400,000.

McFarlane's plea is only a sideshow to the broad conspiracy case that Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating the affair, is building.

According to one source, Mr. Walsh is expected to indict Rear Adm. John Poindexter, who was McFarlane's deputy and succeeded him as national-security adviser; Lt. Col. Oliver North, who headed the arms-sales network; and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, who was also involved in the network. It is unclear whether the fourth person will be Albert Hakim, who was General Secord's business partner, or Tom Clines, who bought weapons that were later sold to the contras.

McFarlane's plea bargain, in which he admitted to relatively minor offenses rather than face possible indictment on more serious crimes such as obstruction of justice, is not expected to unearth much new information. ``McFarlane has been cooperating with Walsh already,'' notes one source familiar with the investigation. ``I would be surprised if there's a bombshell in the testimony he is giving to Walsh as opposed to what he gave'' to congressional investigators, he says.

Unlike other targets of the investigation, such as Colonel North, Admiral Poindexter, Secord, and Mr. Hakim, McFarlane testified before Congress without a grant of limited immunity from prosecution. Thus, Walsh's investigators have been able to use his congressional testimony all along without the risk of ``tainting'' or jeopardizing their case. He has also appeared several times without immunity before the grand jury convened to hear evidence gathered by Walsh.

On the courthouse steps after he met with the judge presiding over the case, McFarlane said, ``I've told all that I know, and it's on the public record for everyone to see.'' Walsh, too, denied that McFarlane's grand jury testimony was a ``breakthrough.''

In and of itself, the damage created by McFarlane's plea bargain to others in the administration is more symbolic than substantive, says one lawyer. ``The mere fact that he pled guilty to criminal conduct does not in any way bring it closer to the President or the vice-president,'' he says.

It appears that McFarlane's value rests not in the information he can provide, but in the role he will play in tying the conspiracy case together, one legal source says. Walsh hinted at that when he said that McFarlane's testimony ``relieves us of certain difficult joinder matters.'' In other words, it will help Walsh join several defendants together in multiple charges - that is, the conspiracy case.

Furthermore, McFarlane will make Walsh's life much easier in front of a trial jury. ``If you're investigating conspiracy, it's always useful to get one of the co-conspirators to participate in the prosecution,'' notes one legal expert. Without such cooperation, says a prosecutor involved in the investigation, the case would have to be presented to the jury ``piece by piece,'' relying heavily on documents. ``If you can have a witness who gives them a narrative, it helps to make it coherent for the jury,'' he says.

There have been rumors that McFarlane was discussing a plea bargain for months. Ever since the scandal became public in November 1986, he has appeared more tormented than others about his role and the cloud cast over the Reagan administration. In February 1987, he attempted suicide.

Although the plea bargain saves McFarlane the ordeal of a public prosecution, there are no guarantees that he will be saved a stint in prison. Walsh would not say Friday whether he would recommend leniency when McFarlane is sentenced.

Specifically, McFarlane admitted to withholding information in three letters to House committees (on Sept. 5, Sept. 12, and Oct. 7, 1985) in which he denied knowledge of money being raised for the contras. On the fourth count, he admitted to making false statements in testimony Dec. 8, 1986 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, when he said he had no ``concrete'' knowledge that a foreign country (Saudi Arabia) had given money to the contras.

The McFarlane plea signals the imminent end of a 15-month investigation studded with obstacles for the government prosecutors.

Investigators had to shield themselves from any information arising from congressional testimony last summer by immunized witnesses, which basically meant a news blackout for many on Walsh's staff. They have tried - not entirely successfully, it is believed - to fill gaps in information created by the shredding machine and memory lapses of testifiers.

They had to fight pitched battles for documents with attorneys for North and other targets. They were also forced to wait until November to obtain financial records from Switzerland - a cornerstone to the case.

And the biggest hurdle looms ahead. If the Supreme Court later this spring agrees that the law authorizing independent counsels is unconstitutional, the evidence arising from the first three months of the investigation could be thrown out.

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