- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

A former top Justice Department official Thursday denied any impropriety in checking the department's confidential computer database for criminal records in response to a request by a lawyer from Attorney General Janet Reno's former law firm.

Former Associate Attorney General John Schmidt told the House Government Reform Committee that no records were ever discovered or turned over, and that this order to search the database contrary to the department's normal policy was aimed at saving money because of a threatened lawsuit in the matter.

"In this case, there were no records and I wanted to avoid the necessity of having to litigate over records that did not exist," said Mr. Schmidt, who served as the Justice Department's No. 3 official. "I concluded it made sense to disclose the fact that there were no records and put the matter to rest."

Mr. Schmidt made the decision to release the information after overruling Richard L. Huff, director of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy, who had turned down an initial request for information.

The search was conducted in 1995 following a request by Rebekah Poston, a partner at Steel, Hector & Davis, who wanted to know on behalf of a client, the Japanese Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai, if criminal records existed for Nobuo Abe, who led a rival Buddhist sect called Nichiren Shoshu. The two sects were involved in a pending lawsuit.

Committee Republicans, led by Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, questioned whether the Miami firm received favorable treatment when the database was searched and whether the decision to release the information violated federal law.

Republican members also suggested that those who sought the information had broken the law.

"Political favors are nothing new. It happens in Congress. It happens at the White House. It's an unfortunate fact of life in this town," said Mr. Burton. "But if there's one place where political favors shouldn't happen, it's at the Justice Department.

"And if there's one thing that shouldn't be handed out to political friends, it's criminal records of other people," he said.

Ms. Poston described herself as a friend of Miss Reno's and said her sister, Roberta Forrest, had served as Miss Reno's campaign manager when she ran for state's attorney in Florida. She said her sister later worked in the office after Miss Reno was elected.

During a daylong appearance before the committee, Ms. Poston denied any wrongdoing, saying she followed what she believed were normal procedures in seeking information she thought important to her client.

"I don't understand how this committee could believe I did something wrong. In the first place, the information I sought didn't exist and, secondly, even if it had existed, the government had already ruled that I was entitled to it," said Ms. Poston, who cited the attorney-client privilege in declining to discuss her client.

Committee Republicans also challenged a number of memos written by Ms. Poston and others, including a private investigative firm in Miami known as the Philip Manuel Resource Group, which had been hired to uncover arrest records on Mr. Abe.

They suggested the private investigators also broke the law in seeking the information from the Justice Department's National Computer Information Center (NCIC), a protected law enforcement database.

Mr. Manuel denied any wrongdoing, telling the committee its information was faulty and suggesting it check its own sources. He said the committee had been "sold a bill of goods" by one of his former employees, Richard Lucas.

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