Tumult at Justice takes its toll. Career bureaucrats steer daily tasks, but new probes, initiatives left waiting

Law enforcement has become a casualty of turmoil at the Justice Department. On a day-to-day basis, the bureaucracy is marching on seemingly unaffected by the resignations of top officials and questions over whether the attorney general should remain in office.

But when it comes to launching new investigations and initiatives, getting through legislation for law enforcement, and filling judgeships, the cogs of Justice have slowed considerably, according to current and former Justice Department employees as well as congressional aides dealing with the department.

``In terms of the department as a force in policymaking and with the Hill and its grander relations with the US attorneys, for example, it [the turmoil] has had an effect,'' says one Justice Department official who requested anonymity. ``There have been a number of initiatives which have gotten stalled by a combination of factors, among them, the attorney general's preoccupation with other things.''

On one level, the department has been insulated over the last few months. ``One of the great strengths of the department is that it's filled with exceptional career people who do most of the day-to-day work,'' says Associate Attorney General Stephen Trott, who is leaving for a federal judgeship later this month.

And for now at least, the front-page saga of the department has veered away from a dramatic climax. On Friday, James McKay, the independent counsel who is investigating Attorney General Edwin Meese III, said there is no evidence ``developed to date'' to criminally indict Meese for his role in the Iraqi pipeline project and financial holdings in the regional telephone companies, though investigation continues.

If Mr. McKay recommends no indictments, however, the Justice Department will then pick up its internal investigation into Meese's financial dealings, which have been on hold during McKay's investigation.

Moreover, the attorney general seems to have headed off a new spate of resignations - among them, that of Solicitor General Charles Fried - that were reportedly in the works after the deputy attorney general and chief of the criminal division quit last week. This week Mr. Meese is expected to appoint Judge Arlin Adams of Philadelphia to be deputy attorney general, the No. 2 spot; Francis Keating II, a Treasury Department official, to be associate attorney general (No. 3); and James Knapp, who has worked in the Justice Department's tax and criminal divisions, to head the criminal division (No. 6).

But these steps are unlikely to end to the tumult, says Philip Heymann, who headed the Justice Department's criminal division during the Carter administration. ``The series of investigations and ethical problems Mr. Meese has [encountered] will continue to be time-consuming for him and demoralizing for the department,'' he says.

Nor can relief from McKay and new appointments undo the damage already inflicted on law enforcement, says one Justice Department official. By way of example, this official cites proposed legislation that would help prosecutors go after corrupt public officials. In June the Supreme Court invalidated a major legal tool used by prosecutors. The ruling was ``devastating'' to prosecutors, this official says, and law enforcement agencies - US attorneys, state district attorneys, the National Association of Attorneys General - quickly pushed for remedial legislation. The House and Senate introduced bills shortly after.

But the Justice Department delayed coming out with a position, in large part, this attorney and others say, because of bureaucratic wrangling that has gotten out of control over the last year. ``The decision for what is right for law enforcement could not be clearer, and it has been stalled,'' the official notes. The department reportedly has a position paper prepared, but it is still ``in limbo,'' a Justice Department spokesman says.

One Justice Department watcher says vacancies in the upper echelons of Justice make it hard for people below the division-head level to launch major investigations, approve major settlements, weigh in on legislative approaches - in short, to start any new initiatives - without approval of senior people.

New appointments this week will only help at the margin, says former Criminal Division chief Heymann, because it will take some time for the appointees ``to get on top of things.''

Moreover, he says, new bodies will not improve management and morale problems that reportedly spurred Deputy Attorney General Arnold Burns and Criminal Division chief William Weld to quit last week. ``They resigned because the situation was such that the Justice Department was not functioning.''

And while the new appointees are expected to start their jobs immediately, they still must be confirmed by the Senate.

That could stymie the administration in another key judicial goal, says Walter Dellinger, a professor at Duke Law School. ``The administration, by virtue of those resignations, may well have lost the opportunity to name some number of federal judges because it's likely the [Senate] Judiciary Committee will give precedence to confirmation hearings on the nominees for these position,'' he says. There are 42 judgeships open.

In general, relations with the Democratically controlled Congress have soured dramatically, congressional aides say, although they seem to have improved somewhat with recent personnel changes at the department. ``I have never seen a department which institutionally has gone so low,'' says one aide who works on judicial matters.

Sometimes, another congressional staff member says, that can result in muscle-flexing that irritates the Hill. On Thursday, for example, the Senate was set to approve a popular bill with bipartisan support designed to protect children from being abducted by their estranged parents, to other countries. The House had already approved a similar bill. At the 11th hour, the Justice Department reportedly asked a Republican senator to hold the legislation.

The department had earlier voiced concerns over the legislation. But since the legislation was considered a shoe-in, this aide says, ``We figured Justice is just trying to prove they can still take a stand, that they're still a player. Or else,'' he says, ``they're in such chaos they can't decide which way to go.''

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