Senate confirmation for senior Justice Department official is in jeopardy

In the end it has come down to a question of credibility. Did William Bradford Reynolds, President Reagan's nominee for associate attorney general, deliberately try to mislead the Senate Judiciary Committee during his stormy confirmation hearings and on other occasions?

That question has placed a cloud over what was once considered an easy confirmation for Mr. Reynolds. A number of statements by Reynolds have now been challenged with sworn affidavits, documents, and pointed questions from angry senators. And Reynolds's confirmation as the nation's No. 3 law-enforcement official is said to be in serious trouble.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to settle the issue in a confirmation vote today. It is uncertain how the committee (10 Republicans and 8 Democrats) will vote.

The key swing votes are said to belong to Sens. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R) of Maryland, and Howell Heflin (D) of Alabama.

During extensive and pointed questioning by senators, Reynolds, no stranger to controversy, has attempted to defend his record as the current chief of the ustice Department's civil rights division. In that post he has become, in his own words, ``the personification'' of the Reagan administration's most controversial civil rights issues, including opposition to quotas in affirmative-action minority-hiring plans and to forced busing as a means of desegregating schools.

Although several Republican senators charge that Democratic opposition to Reynolds is based solely on philosophical differences on these issues, others on the Judiciary Committee maintain that their objections to Reynolds are more basic.

``It is not an issue of busing and quotas,'' Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona told Reynolds during the hearings. ``It is an issue of whether you told the truth here.''

Senator DeConcini added he was ``deeply disappointed'' over ``out-and-out bold distortions and mistruths that you told this committee.'' On the committee, DeConcini is considered to be a swing vote, often siding with the Republicans. But on the Reynolds issue, he has announced he will oppose the nomination.

During more than seven hours of testimony Tuesday, Reynolds repeatedly apologized to the senators for what he termed misunderstandings arising out of parts of his testimony at an earlier hearing. ``I have not tried to mislead the committee,'' he stressed. While ``there are some instances where my recollection may have failed me,'' he added, his intent was purely to ``speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.''

Hearings on the Reynolds nomination were held for two days earlier this month, and it seemed that despite Democratic opposition, Reynolds was as good as confirmed. But the hearings were ordered reopened by Senator Mathias after questions were raised about the truthfulness of Reynolds's original testimony.

In the Tuesday hearing, Senator Specter questioned Reynolds closely about his position concerning a 1982 Voting Rights Act case in Burke County, Ga.

Specter noted that Reynolds had testified before Congress in 1982 concerning the Burke County case. Specter said it was his impression at the time that Reynolds felt the Burke County case was a clear violation of the law, an example of discrimination against blacks.

The senator said he became ``very concerned'' when he recently saw a 1982 memo by Reynolds to former Solicitor General Rex Lee. The memo indicated that the US, if it entered the Burke County case, should do so on the side of the white county officials who were accused of discriminating against Burke County blacks. The case eventually went to the US Supreme Court, where it was decided that black residents had been discriminated against in local elections in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Reynolds said that at the time, he didn't think it was appropriate to publicly discuss his views about any given case. He apologized to Specter for giving the wrong impression, noting ``there might have been room for misunderstanding.''

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