The Justice Department is opening a criminal investigation into allegations that Republican staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee improperly accessed computerized memos by their Democratic counterparts between 2001 and 2003, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat, said Monday.
The department has assigned the investigation to David N. Kelley, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Leahy said.
"This is a serious matter that deserves and requires careful investigation," Leahy said in a statement issued Monday evening after receiving a letter about the investigation from Assistant Atty. Gen. William E. Moschella.
A Justice Department spokesman refused to confirm or deny that an investigation was proceeding.
Leahy said that the Senate's sergeant-at-arms, William Pickle, who investigated the intrusion and determined that two Republican staffers had been responsible, had "made a good start with his investigation and report," but that the Justice Department would be able to go further.
"With the powers available to a federal prosecutor, this matter can now be more thoroughly investigated, so that those who engaged in criminal conduct may be brought to justice," Leahy said, adding that he looked forward "to helping Mr. Kelley in any way I can."
A spokesman for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the committee, did not return a phone call Monday night.
Republicans and Democrats on the panel had asked the Justice Department to take action in the case after Pickle submitted his report last month. After interviewing dozens of Senate aides, Pickle determined that two Republicans on the committee staff -- Manuel Miranda, a lawyer, and Jason Lundell, a clerk who worked for Hatch -- had taken advantage of a poorly protected computer system to read and download more than 4,000 memos written by Democratic staffers to Democratic senators on the committee. Neither man now works for the committee.
Some of the memos, pertaining to the contentious process of nominating federal judges, were turned over to conservative organizations and newspapers, which printed them as evidence that liberal interest groups were unfairly blocking the appointment of conservative judges -- allegations Democrats strongly denied.
Pickle's three-month investigation brought work on the committee, which long has been riven by partisan politics, to a virtual halt.
Miranda, who has acknowledged reading the memos, has insisted he did nothing wrong, characterizing his actions as mere "political hardball." He said the memos provided valuable information on Democratic strategy to block some of President Bush's more controversial nominees for the federal bench.
But Hatch, Leahy and others on the committee denounced the accessing of Democratic staffers' computer files as a breach of Senate ethics that damaged the committee and the Senate. The incident also raised concerns about the security of congressional computer networks. At the time, Democrats and Republicans on the committee shared a single server. They now use separate servers.
The intrusion into Democratic files was uncovered late last year after some of the memos were leaked to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and conservative columnist Robert Novak.
Democrats don't know whether the information was passed along to the White House. Hatch has said he was satisfied that the White House did not receive the information.