An investigation by the Miami U.S. attorney's office into alleged arms shipments to the Nicaraguan contras drew sharp criticism Wednesday in Washington from Senate and House Democrats, who said an independent counsel should take over the case.
Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats told the three-judge panel that will appoint anindependent counsel who will investigate the diversion to the contras of profits from arms sales to Iran that the counsel's probe should range beyond what the Justice Department requested in a petition filed last week.
In addition, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on criminal law, said Wednesday that the Justice Department was "handling the matter unprofessionally" and that the Reagan administration "is not interested in a clean and credible disposition of the matter" because it will not surrender the Miami investigation to the independent counsel.
ALLEGED ARMS SHIPMENTS
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Opponents of President Reagan's policies in Central America have accused federal prosecutors of dragging their feet in the probe into alleged weapons shipments from Fort Lauderdale- Hollywood International Airport to contras in Costa Rica. The investigation into the March 1985 shipment began last spring and was referred to a grand jury in November, federal sources in Miami said. There have been no indictments.
Conyers' rebuke came after Attorney General Edwin Meese, during a press conference Tuesday at the American Embassy in London, said that the Justice Department will maintain control of the Miami investigation.
"An investigation that was requested into other aspects of the funding of the contras is going ahead as a separate investigation within the Department of Justice, " Meese said. "That's an ongoing investigation that has been continuing now over several weeks, if not months. That investigation will continue independently."
Reagan announced Dec. 2 that he would ask a three-judge panel to select an independent counsel to investigate the sale of weapons to Iran by the United States. Profits from those sales were secretly diverted to the contra rebels.
NOT BROAD ENOUGH
But Conyers and other House members say the request for the independent counsel is not broad enough and should include the Miami case as well as the investigation of a contra supply plane shot down in Nicaragua Oct. 5.
Several House members were angered by Meese's most recent decision.
"This confirms our worries, " said Rep. Don Edwards, D- Calif. "He's sending a message to the public that you needn't worry . . . because we're going to do it in the Department of Justice. That's totally unacceptable because it's a very large conflict of interest."
Rep. Robert Kastenmeier, D-Wis., said, "I'm disappointed, because from what the attorney general had said, we assumed the counsel's jurisdiction would be broad indeed."
The grand jury, which has been in session since early November, is reviewing allegations that a network of Miami contra supporters organized shipments of weapons and trafficked in drugs to bankroll the operation, another source said. The activities may have violated the federal Neutrality Act, which prohibits plotting to overthrow nations with which the United States has diplomatic relations.
Herald wire services contributed to this report.