Thursday, September 27, 2007

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III ordered an internal investigation into whether bureau agents interfered with midterm congressional elections by disclosing a corruption probe that undermined the re-election bid of Republican Rep. Curt Weldon weeks before the Nov. 7 vote.

The internal probe was disclosed in a Senate Judiciary Committee report containing the FBI‘s written answers to questions posed by committee members.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, asked why FBI agents searched the office of Mr. Weldon’s daughter and a business associate three weeks before the elections.

The publicity from the raid contributed to the Pennsylvania Republican’s defeat and led to the election of retired Navy Vice Adm. Joe Sestak, a former Clinton administration national security official.

Mr. Grassley said in his questions to the FBI that the timing of the raid “left the FBI open to criticism and speculation about whether there was an attempt to influence an election.” He also wrote that after the investigation was disclosed in the press, the FBI was forced to conduct the searches to prevent the destruction of evidence.

“It appears that the FBI would not have executed these search warrants until after the election except for the fact that someone — possibly an employee of the Justice Department or FBI — leaked the fact of the investigation to the media,” Mr. Grassley said.

Asked if the FBI knows the identity of the person who made the disclosure or is investigating the matter, the FBI said that “an internal review of this matter is being conducted at the request of Director Mueller.”

Mr. Weldon declined to comment on the probe, but a person familiar with the former congressman’s thinking said he believes the Justice Department and FBI deliberately sought to sabotage his re-election bid by disclosing the probe in the press within days of the election.

Mr. Weldon suspects that careerists and Democratic Party sympathizers in the Justice Department worked covertly with former Clinton administration officials to defeat him and to elect Mr. Sestak, according to the person.

Mr. Weldon had played a key role in several high-profile investigations of the Clinton administration, including its role in a 1996 illegal transfer of missile technology to China, the 1990s loss of nuclear secrets to China, and the investigation of Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, who in April 2005 pleaded guilty to illegally removing classified documents from the National Archives related to counterterrorism efforts.

The federal investigation of Mr. Weldon and his daughter was requested by Melanie Sloan, a former assistant U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration, who heads the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Miss Sloan said in an interview that her request was sent after a Los Angeles Times report in 2004 suggested Mr. Weldon, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, helped steer defense contracts to his daughter’s business consultancy. He was later cleared of the charges by the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee.

Miss Sloan said in an interview that she was unaware the FBI in 2006 had started its investigation, and that she had no contact with Justice Department officials or the news reporter who broke the story about the investigation Oct. 13.

Politically, disclosure of the Weldon probe added to pre-election problems for Republican candidates faced with negative publicity from the sex scandal of former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, and the defense contracting corruption case of former California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

A Justice Department spokesman said the internal probe is being handled by the U.S. attorney for Delaware, Colm F. Connolly. Mr. Connolly had no immediate comment. An FBI spokesman declined to discuss the status of the probe and referred questions to the Justice Department.

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