updated 4/26/2004 10:28:36 PM ET 2004-04-27T02:28:36

The Justice Department on Monday asked the new U.S. attorney in New York to investigate how Republicans got access to Democrats’ computer memos in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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A report by the Senate sergeant-at-arms earlier this year faulted two of committee chairman Orrin Hatch’s former employees for the intrusion into the Democrats’ computer documents. It says 4,670 files were found on a GOP aide’s computer, “the majority of which appeared to be from folders belonging to Democratic staff.”

Democrats have called for an outside investigation, and the Justice Department on Monday sent the case to David Kelley, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Kelley, a Democrat, took James Comey’s position as U.S. attorney after Comey left to become deputy attorney general, the No. 2 job at the Justice Department.

Kelley is “an experienced prosecutor of the highest integrity and independence,” said Assistant Attorney General William Moschella in a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “We are confident the investigation will be handled in a thorough, fair, impartial and professional manner.”

The Justice Department would not comment beyond the letter to Leahy.

“This is a serious matter that deserves and requires careful investigation,” said Leahy, who requested the investigation. “The Senate sergeant-at-arms made a good start with his investigation and report. 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.”

Bipartisan support
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called the appointment “a very good first step” and said Kelley is “independent” and “without conflicts.”

“The only thing missing is for [Attorney General] John Ashcroft to recuse himself to avoid any potential conflict of interests,” Schumer said.

Added Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas: “If there is to be an investigation, I’m encouraged to know that the decision will be made by professionals, not partisans. Now, perhaps, the Senate Judiciary Committee can get back to work.”

The report by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William Pickle’s office blamed the intrusion on former GOP aides Manuel Miranda, who worked for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, and Jason Lundell, a clerk who worked on nominations for Hatch. Miranda resigned during the dispute. Lundell left last year.

“The matter had to be referred to someone to review. I expect that any fair-minded, apolitical law enforcement professional will quickly conclude what legislators could not:...that no crime was committed,” Miranda said. “I hope that this referral includes the charges of corruption filed against Democrat senators with the DOJ Office of Public Integrity.”

Conservatives say the memos prove the Democrats colluded with liberal groups over which Bush nominees to block. One ethics complaint has been filed against Democrats Sen. Richard Durbin, of Illinois, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts, based on the leaked information.

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