The Justice Department has told congressional staff members that it plans to seek indictments in connection with allegations that Agriculture Department employees illegally collected campaign funds to support Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential bid, according to documents obtained by The Times.
House Agriculture Committee staff members reported in memos to committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) that they were told by John C. Kenney, acting assistant attorney general, Sept. 26 that the department intends to present its case to a grand jury, probably next month, for possible indictments.
The House panel also is investigating the matter, which involves allegations that high-level career Agriculture Department officials broke federal laws by soliciting and accepting campaign contributions in a government workplace and by suggesting that those who contributed would benefit professionally after a Democratic administration took office.
Justice officials asked the committee to delay a planned hearing until they take the case to a grand jury, according to internal House documents. A spokeswoman for Roberts said the hearing would be postponed to avoid interfering with the Justice Department investigation, which began six months ago.
The department declined to comment Tuesday. In general, prosecutors can go to a grand jury to seek subpoenas for witnesses or documentary evidence, to seek indictments or to close the case without filing charges.
The inquiries are considered particularly sensitive because they potentially involve two prominent Democrats. The donations went to the Farmers & Ranchers '92 political action committee. Rep. Mike Espy of Mississippi, who later became Clinton's first Agriculture secretary, was a national co-chairman of the committee. The PAC, based in Little Rock, Ark., spent most of its funds on behalf of Clinton's candidacy.
The other Democrat is Grant B. Buntrock, who was appointed to run the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, then the nation's major domestic farm assistance program, after the 1992 election.
A total of 38 high-ranking employees of the service gave donations generally ranging from $50 to $500 to Farmers and Ranchers. Many of the contributions were reportedly channeled through Buntrock, who was a farm activist at the time. He is now acting director of the Consolidated Farm Service Agency, which was established last year to include the program he previously headed as well as other services.
The Times, which disclosed the allegations last November, reported that 21 of the career employees who contributed to the PAC were promoted or given more appealing temporary or permanent assignments under the Clinton Administration. Civil service positions, in contrast to political appointments, are supposed to be based on merit, not partisan credentials.
Espy said last year that his PAC position was honorary and insisted that there was no link between the campaign donations and the later job changes. He stepped down Dec. 31 amid an independent counsel inquiry into unrelated allegations that he accepted illegal gratuities from agribusinesses.
Buntrock declined to comment for this story. But he previously said that all appointments during his tenure had adhered to the "very, very strict requirements" of the Civil Service process.
A spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman declined to comment as well.
FBI officials have questioned dozens of civil servants in Washington and Kansas City who donated to Farmers & Ranchers or were asked to do so, sources said. One interviewee said investigators told him: "They could say, without a doubt, that federal laws have been broken."
Although government workers are permitted to make campaign donations, the Justice Department is examining whether laws were violated that prohibit federal employees from soliciting or receiving a political contribution in a government workplace or proffering employment benefits in exchange for the support of a candidate or party, sources said. Both transgressions are felonies punishable by a maximum of three years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Investigators are also focusing on whether those who raised funds may have threatened to deny job advancement to employees who failed to contribute to the PAC. Such an act is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and fines of $100,000.
In addition, the federal Hatch Act bars most solicitation or collection of campaign funds by civil servants. The restriction is intended to safeguard the professionalism of career employees and the nonpartisan delivery of federally funded public services. Violation of the act is a civil offense, punishable by employment sanctions, including dismissal.
Two Agriculture Department employees, each of whom requested anonymity, said in interviews last week that they told FBI and House investigators that they had been solicited at their government workplaces to contribute to the Farmers & Ranchers PAC in late 1992.
One said he handed a check to an associate in the individual's Agriculture Department office. The other said that the senior colleague who approached him about donating to the PAC made it clear shortly before the 1992 election that he was talking "with people inside and outside the government about the movement of personnel in both career and appointed positions in preparation for the next Democratic administration."
The Agriculture Committee has covered some of the same ground as Justice Department investigators. Jim Lager, an assistant general counsel at the General Accounting Office, has been on loan to the committee for nearly two months to conduct its review. Committee sources said they have found "substantial evidence of Hatch Act and other violations," including solicitations at federal workplaces.
A senior Agriculture Committee official said that Roberts is determined "to make sure--if these things did happen--that employees understand that this is completely unacceptable and that they never happen again and that, if there are people who benefited from this, that they are, to the extent possible, punished for it."
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.