Commerce Department expands its investigation of former officials; Federal judge suspects a cover-up in lawsuit


WASHINGTON -- Commerce Secretary William M. Daley has asked the department's inspector general to expand his investigation into whether officials systematically concealed and destroyed documents sought in a lawsuit, after a federal judge made those charges in a stinging rebuke of the department, officials said last week.

Judge Royce C. Lamberth compared the behavior of former Commerce officials to that of "con artists" and "scofflaws." In harshly criticizing the department in a ruling last month, Lamberth demonstrated that he had lost patience in trying to supervise a lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch, a conservative group, against the department. Judicial Watch has charged in its 4-year-old lawsuit that the late secretary of commerce, Ronald H. Brown, favored donors to the Democratic Party in giving out seats on government trade missions overseas.

Lamberth said there was clear evidence that after Brown was killed in a plane crash on April 3, 1996, "there was a flurry of document shredding in the secretary's office." Further, he said, there was ample evidence that department officials never really conducted any serious search for the documents sought by Judicial Watch in requests authorized by the court.

In unusually scathing language, the judge wrote, "Either out of carelessness or deliberate defiance, the Department of Commerce repeatedly and grossly mishandled materials responsive to Judicial Watch's Freedom of Information Act requests."

He also complained that some former department officials had improperly taken official documents with them when they left to go into the private sector. He ordered those documents returned along with videotapes and audiotapes of some of the trade missions, which had been sent to Howard University to become part of a permanent Ron H. Brown Jr. Collection.

Finally, he complained that the department handed out awards to some of the very employees who were involved in the delay and destruction of the documents.

Morrie Goodman, chief spokesman for the Commerce Department, said last week that Daley would do everything possible to find out what had occurred. Goodman said it would be improper for the department to investigate itself, so the secretary has asked the acting inspector general assigned to Commerce, Johnnie Frazier, to undertake the investigation. Frazier was already looking into some aspects of the matter, officials said.

None of the officials whose actions were criticized by the judge are still with the department.

Lamberth also noted that Nolanda S. Hill, whom he described as a business partner and confidante of Brown, has testified that Brown told her he was ordered by senior White House officials to "slow down" the effort to comply with Judicial Watch's requests.

In her deposition, Hill testified that Brown had said the orders came from Leon E. Panetta, then the White House chief of staff, and John D. Podesta, who is now the chief of staff.

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