A criminal investigation by the Justice Department has concluded that the chief spokesman for the attorney general and a former FBI official played roles in confirming a politically damaging CBS report about Rep. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, one of the top Democratic leaders in the House.
The investigation failed to establish the original source of the information, but said the individual probably was outside the Justice Department, sources close to the investigation said Thursday.
The CBS report, broadcast when Gray was running for his leadership post last spring, suggested that Gray's financial dealings were being investigated by federal officials. Democrats charged that the leak about the inquiry, which actually was focused on an accountant for Gray, was calculated to damage Gray's reputation at a time when a number of Democratic leaders were under fire.
Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh responded at the time by declaring that Gray himself was not the target of the inquiry, and by ordering an investigation into the disclosure.
In a statement Thursday responding to a New York Times' story, Thornburgh defended his spokesman, David Runkel, saying he was "acting in an authorized manner" when he refused to deny or wave off the CBS reporter, Rita Braver, when she contacted him about the story.
"He was following my standing instruction that no one in the department mislead the media," Thornburgh said.
The sources close to the investigation emphasized that it concluded that there was no evidence anyone on Thornburgh's staff was the original source of the Gray report.
The investigation by the department's criminal division found that after obtaining the original information, Braver, who has declined to discuss her reporting on the matter, first contacted an official in the FBI, who confirmed some of the "core" facts. She then contacted Runkel, according to the sources, who believes that she outlined the facts of what she planned to report and, in words to the effect, asked: "Are you going to wave me off? Is this a bad story?" Runkel then responded no, the sources said.
"Unfortunately, there are circumstances where a statement of the kind likely made here by Mr. Runkel may be used by a reporter as confirmation of a story," Thornburgh said.
It is common practice in Washington reporting to attempt to verify with official spokesmen information that a reporter has obtained from a source who is not an official spokesman.
Thornburgh said he has instructed his staff not to mislead the media. He added: "If . . . the media on occasion interprets the fact that we will not deny information or wave them off of a story as confirmation of an unauthorized disclosure, then that is an inevitable byproduct of our policy." Thornburgh made no mention of the New York Times' report that Runkel had failed a polygraph examination on the Gray leak. Sources familiar with the investigation said the matter on which Runkel "showed deception," or which was inconclusive during the polygraph test, did not relate to the question of who first leaked existence of the Gray probe.
The disclosure of the investigation's central finding is not likely to put an end to the affair, which takes on special importance because of the heavy emphasis Thornburgh has placed on shutting off leaks from his department.
Last December, when the investigation was completed, Thornburgh told Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that insufficient evidence had been developed to prosecute anyone or discipline any present department employee.
Under pressure from Biden and other Democrats on Capitol Hill, Thornburgh on April 3 submitted the Gray leak investigation to Michael E. Shaheen Jr., the department's career internal watchdog, for his "advice."
Shaheen has completed his review and submitted a report on it to Thornburgh through his assistant, Murray Dickman.
It could not be learned what position Shaheen took on the investigation or whether Thornburgh will submit Shaheen's advice to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Shaheen's view could be crucial, because as counsel for professional responsibility, his office has served as the department's conscience. He has criticized in official reports several previous attorneys general for their conduct in various matters.
It was considered unusual that Thornburgh turned the Gray leak over to the criminal division rather than to Shaheen, who has conducted most of the department's leak probes.
In a letter to Biden last Dec. 29, after the investigation was completed, Thornburgh said he had been told that Shaheen's office "has agreed with all of the criminal division's decisions regarding the investigation, as well as with the conclusions they reached."
But Shaheen then said that he had not seen the report, and Biden began pressing for it to be turned over to him.