A poorly protected computer system and two zealous Republican staff members were to blame for computer files written by Democratic staff members being handed over to conservative interest groups and the media, a Senate investigation has determined.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday released Sergeant-at-Arms William Pickle's three-month investigation into the accessing of Democratic staff files.
Democrats on the panel immediately called for an outside investigation into what they call the unprecedented theft of one party's internal documents by another party on Capitol Hill.
"If you take things that do not belong to you, that is wrong, and there is no way to whitewash that," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Pickle's report, based on interviews with more than 160 staffers and others, says Manuel Miranda, who was a lawyer on the staff of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, and Jason Lundell, a clerk working on judicial nominations on Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin G. Hatch's staff, pilfered the memos by entering the computer files of Democratic staff members.
According to the report, more than 4,000 documents were copied beginning in 2001, when both men worked for Hatch (R-Utah), and continued for 18 months.
The report says a computer server shared by the committee's Democratic and Republican staffers was set up in such a way that "a majority of the files and folders ... were accessible to all users on the network."
The investigation did not find that the downloaded files had been given to any other staff members or to any senators. The report leaves unanswered the question some Democrats have raised of whether the information was passed to judicial nominees, the White House or the Justice Department to prepare for hearings before the committee.
But Hatch said Thursday that he had been assured by the White House that no one there saw or used the memos.
The report says Lundell, who has since left Hatch's staff to attend graduate school, told investigators he learned how to access the computer files of Democratic staffers by watching a systems administrator perform maintenance work.
Lundell told investigators he first printed 100 to 200 documents in the fall of 2001 that pertained to the nomination of Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. and gave them to a supervisor. He said that two days later, the supervisor and another staff member told him not to use the documents and shredded them.
President Bush, circumventing the Senate confirmation process, in January appointed Pickering to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans until year's end.
Shortly after Miranda joined Hatch's staff in December 2001, Lundell told investigators, he showed Miranda how to access the Democratic staff files and Miranda assured him that such access was neither wrong nor improper.
"Mr. Lundell recalled that Mr. Miranda told him that Sen. Hatch wanted the staff to use any means necessary to support President Bush's nominees," the report says.
Some of the documents were leaked in November to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and to conservative groups that posted them on websites.
The report released Thursday says there was "circumstantial evidence" that Miranda had leaked the documents. Miranda has denied doing so.
In a statement released Thursday, Miranda, who was forced to resign over the scandal, insisted that the investigation failed "to find any criminal hacking or any credible suggestion of criminal acts."
Miranda and some conservatives who support him have alleged that the documents show that Democrats colluded with liberal special-interest groups to block or stall the nominations of some of Bush's more controversial candidates for the federal judiciary.
Democrats say the memos show only that they strategized and consulted with groups that have a stake in such appointments.
The report says Lundell searched Democratic computer files almost daily while the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen was before the committee. Owen's appointment is still being blocked in the Senate.
According to the report, Miranda sometimes instructed Lundell on which documents to pilfer and what information was needed.
Miranda, the report says, continued to receive information from Lundell even after transferring last year to Frist's staff, where Miranda continued to deal with judicial nominations.