The Senate Thursday unanimously confirmed Edward J. Derwinski to be the first head of the Cabinet-level Department of Veterans' Affairs despite his admitted 1977 mistake in tipping off South Korea that one of its intelligence agents was about to defect to U.S. authorities. The vote was 94 to 0.
Derwinski acknowledged that it was "rather stupid" of him to inform a South Korean diplomat of the impending defection of the agent amid the Capitol Hill investigation of influence-peddling known as "Koreagate."
At that time, Derwinski was ranking Republican on a House subcommittee that was making the investigation.
Federal sources familiar with the incident said the defector and his family could have been harmed if the FBI had not escorted them to safety only 30 minutes before Korean CIA agents arrived at his home in the United States.
Chairman Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) of the Senate Veterans' committee was more critical, saying that Derwinski's actions--and later silence and conflicting accounts of what he did--raised "significant ethical questions."
But Cranston--and the Senate--decided to overlook what he called "mistakes" and "dissembling" by Derwinski and approve his nomination because they said his record otherwise was without blemish.
Interrupting the sharply polarized debate over the nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense, the Senate approved Derwinski within hours after its Veterans' committee endorsed him by a vote of 10 to 0.
During committee consideration, Cranston said Derwinski's dissembling over the episode continued into this year. "I find that these actions raise significant ethical questions," he said.
Even so, Cranston said he decided to vote for Derwinski, adding: "I do not find his indiscretions as to this one incident to be disqualifying. I am optimistic about Mr. Derwinski's potential to rise above this unattractive episode, to put it behind him once and for all."
Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking GOP member of the committee, told Derwinski at Wednesday's hearing that he showed a "seeming lack of directness" in replying to FBI inquiries about the incident.
In his first public testimony about the event, Derwinski said he did not think his remarks about the defector to a South Korean diplomat in 1977 "endangered anyone . . . or obstructed justice in any way."
He said he gave the information about the pending defection to a South Korean Embassy political officer during an impromptu meeting outside a House office building. Derwinski said he made the comment in the "supercharged atmosphere involving anything Korean" and in hindsight should never have said it.
Derwinski's tip became known to federal authorities through U.S. surveillance of the South Korean embassy that picked up a reference to his conversation with the Korean diplomat, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Later, Derwinski refused to answer questions before a federal grand jury, citing his congressional standing as grounds for his silence. At the hearings, he said he refused to testify on the advice of his lawyer.
Although for years he denied tipping off the South Koreans about the defector, Derwinski acknowledged his role during 1983 confirmation hearings for a senior State Department post but they attracted little attention at the time.
Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh declined to back a committee request for information from that federal grand jury, which ended its inquiry without taking action.
As a result of the surreptitious electronic monitoring and other classified matters, the Senate panel questioned Derwinski in closed session for 90 minutes Tuesday in a special bug-proof room in the Capitol.