A top Senate Republican expressed "deep regret" Tuesday in announcing that an internal investigation of computer records found that one of his staffers had "improperly accessed" Democratic documents.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch said he placed the staffer on administrative leave with pay pending a separate probe by the Senate sergeant at arms, Bill Pickle.
Hatch, who had initially ridiculed the allegations, also said a former staffer "may also have been involved," but he declined to identify either person by name.
"I am mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files may have occurred on my watch," the Utah Republican told a news conference.
Hatch said the staffer who obtained access to the memos denied giving them to the news media, and it remained unclear how reporters got them.
The disclosure came a week after congressional law enforcement authorities began looking into what Democrats called an apparent computer theft of 14 staff memos critical of President Bush's embattled judicial nominees.
The Democratic memos were quoted in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times this month.
According to the memos, Democrats on Hatch's panel conferred with liberal groups in opposing Bush's most conservative judicial nominees.
Hatch had suggested that the memos had been turned over to the news media by a "conscience-stricken" Democratic staffer.
But the senator said that after the Democratic concerns were raised, he had "two experienced federal prosecutors" assigned to his panel interview about 50 people even as computer records were secured.
"It is with deep regret I must report today the interviews conducted to date have revealed that at least one current member of Judiciary Committee majority staff had improperly accessed at least some of the documents referenced in the media reports," Hatch said.
Democrats on Hatch's committee said through a spokeswoman they were "saddened and disappointed to have their suspicions confirmed that Republican staff violated the privacy of Senate computer files."
"The investigation that counts is the one being conducted by the Senate sergeant at arms," the spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler, said.