WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Packwood, under siege in a year-old sex scandal, was close to resigning from his seat last night just as the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation of him.
After an Oregon TV station reported yesterday that the Republican senator was quitting, his lawyer, James F. Fitzpatrick, told reporters here: "The senator has not resigned. The matter is currently under consideration. I don't know when any decision will be made."
Asked specifically if resignation was one of the options being reviewed, Mr. Fitzpatrick indicated that it was. Mr. Packwood said last night that he did not expect to make an announcement this weekend.
In the early afternoon, the senator received a grand jury subpoena demanding some of his records -- presumably including the personal diaries that have been at the center of an angry legal dispute between Mr. Packwood and the Senate Ethics Committee. Those diaries, the Ethics Committee chairman has said, raised some suspicion of potential criminal violations, including possibly illegal dealings with lobbyists.
CBS reported last night that the senator was prepared to resign but that he wanted all investigations to cease as a condition. If Mr. Packwood does resign, a special election would be called in Oregon to choose a replacement to serve out the remaining five years of his term.
But a Justice Department official said last night that any deal within the Senate to halt the ethics probe would not head off the new criminal investigation of the Oregon senator. That is a matter within the department's discretion. The official refused, however, to disclose what possible criminal charges the department was exploring. A grand jury subpoena does not necessarily mean that an investigation has reached an advanced stage, only that one is proceeding.
The Senate is preparing to wind up its business for the year this weekend, and several sources said that Mr. Packwood's resignation could come before his colleagues leave town.
The Ethics Committee investigation followed disclosures of a series of complaints by 26 women of unwanted sexual advances by the senator over the past 20 years. The investigation has since widened into other potential misdeeds, especially after committee aides began reading portions of the senator's 8,200-page diary.
When the committee and Mr. Packwood deadlocked early this month over the panel's demand to see the entire diary, the Senate voted 94-6 to go to court to get access to every page. The Senate's in-house lawyer, Michael Davidson, was preparing to take that request to court yesterday afternoon but did not do so -- another sign that an attempted deal was being negotiated behind the scenes.
"We still have some loose ends to tie up," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, one of three Democrats on the six-member Ethics Committee.
It was unclear whether Mr. Packwood's thoughts of resignation had been prompted by the prospects of losing the committee subpoena battle in court, the delivery of the criminal probe subpoena, or both.
The Oregonian newspaper reported yesterday that the Ethics Committee was investigating the possibility that Mr. Packwood did favors for Mitsubishi Electric Co. in exchange for a job for his wife after the couple separated. At a subcommittee hearing in November 1989, the senator asked questions that amounted to a defense of the Japanese company, the paper said.
Steven R. Saunders, a former Packwood aide and a lobbyist for Mitsubishi in Washington, offered Georgie Packwood a job paying more than $20,000 at a time when an Oregon divorce court was still deciding how much alimony the senator would be required to pay, according to the Portland newspaper.
Mr. Packwood, 61, was re-elected last year to a fifth six-year Senate term. While reporters were conducting investigations of the alleged sexual incidents prior to last November's election, the senator denied them, and no stories were published. After the election, however, stories did emerge, and the senator then admitted some of the charges and said he had been wrong in making the advances. He went to a treatment center for alcoholics.
Repeatedly this year, however, the senator has refused to resign -- even after he was asked point-blank, on the Senate floor, to do so by the Senate's senior Democrat, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. "It is time to have the grace to go," Mr. Byrd said solemnly on Nov. 2.
As the resignation rumors circulated yesterday, Mr. Packwood denied them with a one-word answer, "No," as reporters talked to him as he went to the Senate floor for a vote. It was after that, however, that his attorney met with reporters and said the situation was being reassessed.