Acting Associate Attorney General Frank Keating said Wednesday that morale at the Justice Department is not as bad as former top department officials have portrayed it.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Keating said that when he came to the Justice Department from the Treasury Department in May, "I was under the impression" that it was "a black hole over there" in terms of morale."I found that was not the case. I think the department is functioning well, and I look forward to serving under" the man chosen by President Reagan to be Meese's successor, former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh, Keating testified.
On Tuesday, former Deputy Attorney General Arnold Burns testified that when he resigned March 29 a "deep malaise" had set in at the department in the face of Attorney General Edwin Meese III's ongoing legal problems.
Keating was asked by Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., what could be done to improve morale at the Justice Department.
He replied that it is important for the Senate to confirm nominees to top positions in the Justice Department. Keating is serving in an acting capacity in the No. 3 job in the department while Harold Christensen of Utah is serving as acting deputy attorney general.
Edward Dennis is the acting attorney general in charge of the criminal division. The judiciary committee is holding a confirmation hearing on Dennis Wednesday; a hearing for Christensen is scheduled for Thursday.
Earlier in the day, Burns said he believes Meese has a "blind spot" on ethical issues and allowed himself to be "hornswaggled" by a friend trying to benefit from Meese's influence.
Burns also described Vice President George Bush as showing deep concern in a meeting to discuss the resignation of Burns and former criminal division chief William E. Weld last March.
Burns told the judiciary committee that Meese had created an "Alice in Wonderland world where right was wrong and wrong became right."
"I am clinging to the notion that Ed Meese had a blind spot where these ethical issues were concerned and that he was taken advantage of, that he was abused, that he was hornswaggled by one E. Bob Wallach," Burns said Wednesday on "CBS This Morning."
Weld told the committee that if Meese were an ordinary citizen, he probably would have been prosecuted for taking gratuities from Wallach, a longtime friend of the attorney general.
Meese has announced he will resign at the end of the month now that an independent counsel has decided not to bring charges against him following a lengthy investigation. Meese has criticized the special counsel, James McKay, for saying in his report that the attorney general "probably committed" three felonies and a misdemeanor.
Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten responded that aggressive prosecutors can take the facts "a little bit too far" and pointed to the conclusion by McKay that Meese had not violated the gratuities statute.
Burns, in the CBS interview, described a meeting in which he and Weld explained to President Reagan and Bush why they were resigning.
"The vice president was distressed. I've described him as being florid," Burns said. "He asked questions, and there was no doubt when I left the meeting I felt that in time the problem would be solved, as it has been by Mr. Meese's resignation."
Meanwhile, Meese's supporters were trying to undercut congressional testimony by the former top aides.
Complimentary letters about the attorney general from 10 current and former Justice Department officials were released at the same time Tuesday that the Senate committee was hearing testimony highly critical of Meese.