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Thornburgh Says Farewell, Defends Tenure : Politics: The attorney general is returning to Pennsylvania to seek a U.S. Senate seat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, in a farewell address, defended his tenure as the nation’s top lawyer Thursday, citing the Justice Department’s handling of the scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit & Commerce International and other major cases.

On his last day in office before returning to Pennsylvania, where he will kick off his Republican campaign for the U.S. Senate, he paused for a brief departing ceremony in the department’s recently refurbished Great Hall.

Thornburgh, 59, who came under fire frequently during his three-year stint as attorney general, seized the opportunity to praise the agency known in Washington simply as Justice, or as Thornburgh called it, “the world’s largest law firm.”

Paraphrasing one of his predecessors, Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell, who served under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Thornburgh said that any attorney general who remains popular would not be carrying out the office’s duties in a responsible fashion.

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“Probably, for better or worse, I do pass that test of responsibility in office,” he said. “I have more than once been a popular target for popular commentators, but I can abide by that distinction, secure in the knowledge that we have done our level best to call ‘em as we see ‘em, without fear or favor from any quarter, and to follow the evidence wherever and to whomever it might lead.”

Besides the BCCI case, he praised the department for its handling of the inquiry into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland and the parade of white-collar criminals sent to jail in connection with the savings and loan debacle.

In each of those cases, Thornburgh has been criticized by lawmakers and media commentators, who have contended that he could have moved more aggressively. More recently, he has drawn fire from abortion rights advocates for his agency’s intervention on behalf of anti-abortion protesters in Wichita, Kan. Thornburgh made no reference to the Wichita demonstrations during his 20-minute speech.

In what appeared to be a preview of his Senate campaign themes, Thornburgh said that Justice Department lawyers followed his mandate to wage an “all-out effort” against drug traffickers and money launderers at home and abroad.

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Regarding BCCI, Thornburgh said that until recently the U.S. government stood alone in the world in prosecuting people associated with the international banking scandal, producing a $15-million record fine and prison sentences for five convicted BCCI officers.

Without elaborating, Thornburgh promised that continuing investigations, including four current grand jury inquiries into BCCI, would result in more convictions.

He predicted a resolution of the continuing investigation into the terrorist attack on Flight 103, which resulted in 270 deaths. Again, however, he offered no details.

In praising the department’s convictions of savings and loan executives, junk bond dealer Michael Milken, corrupt elected officials and unethical defense contractors, Thornburgh said that he had pursued “crime in the suites” in what he characterized as an “explosion of activity.”

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Although he accepted credit for spearheading passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which extended civil rights protections to 43 million disabled citizens, Thornburgh made no reference to the 1991 civil rights bill pending in Congress. The Bush Administration opposes the legislation, and the attorney general has been among the most outspoken critics of the Democrat-sponsored measure.

“I’m pleased to say that we can look back with real satisfaction on the progress made . . . toward each of the goals I set forth” on assuming office in 1988, Thornburgh said.

The retiring attorney general will be temporarily succeeded at Justice by his deputy, William Barr. President Bush has not decided on a permanent successor.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Thornburgh faces Democrat Harris Wofford, who was appointed to the seat after Republican John Heinz died in an airplane crash last May.

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