Federal ethics officials want to know why Attorney General Edwin Meese III solicited 30,000 lawyers and businessmen to pay more than $3,000 apiece to a profit-making organization to attend a conference.

The Office of Government Ethics on Tuesday launched an investigation into Meese's April 26 letter, the head of the ethics office, Frank Q. Nebeker, said Tuesday night."We're attempting to ascertain what the facts are," he said.

Meese's letter - written on the attorney general's official stationery and emblazoned with the Justice Department seal - was sent to about 30,000 people whose names were "provided by everyone from the American Bar Association, the advisory committees on both sides, to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan," said Norm Swanson, chairman of the Citizen Ambassador Program, the profit-making group that is a co-sponsor of the meeting along with a Japanese federation.

A presidential order on ethics forbids federal officials from engaging in any conduct that might present the appearance of favoritism, conflict of interest or loss of objectivity in governmental decision making. The appearance of such a problem is enough to trigger an investigation, whether or not actual conflicts are known to exist.

In addition, it is a crime to use the Justice Department seal for non-authorized purposes.

Meese will be heading a U.S. delegation to the Aug. 29-Sept. 1 legal and economic conference in Japan called "The U.S.-Japan Bilateral Session: A New Era in Legal and Economic Relations."

Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland said the department was unaware that a profit-making organization was involved, but he contended Meese's involvement might still be justified.

The U.S. sponsor for the meeting is the Citizen Ambassador Program of People to People International.