Sen. Orrin Hatch

WASHINGTON — A chorus of conservative groups say Sen. Orrin Hatch's attempts to appease Democrats converted a "smoking gun" supposedly proving Democratic corruption of judicial confirmations into a bomb wounding only Republicans.

Criticism of the Utah Republican comes as Manuel Miranda, a top GOP aide overseeing judicial nominations, resigned Friday amid a probe into whether Republicans hacked into Senate computers to obtain and leak Democratic memos about judicial confirmations. Another unnamed aide, said to be a Utah native, quit earlier after telling probers he saw the files but did not leak them.

"They are definitely making them scapegoats, and hanging them out to dry," complained Jeff Mazella, executive director of the conservative Center for Individual Freedom, about Hatch and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

"They hope that will just make the issue (of hacking) go away. But I don't know why they have never called for investigations into the content of those memos," he said. "They show how Democrats have corrupted the process. They prove special interests have full control over committee Democrats and are pulling their puppet strings."

At issue are Democratic memos leaked last year to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. They showed, for example, that Democrats and liberal groups worked together to target Hispanic nominee Miguel Estrada specifically because they did not want Republicans to make political gains with Hispanics.

Another memo showed that staffers for Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., sought to delay confirmation of two nominees to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals specifically to ensure that court would still have a liberal majority when it heard a key Michigan affirmative action case.

When the leaks emerged, Kennedy and Dick Durbin, D-N.Y., howled that the only way such information could have gone to the press would be if someone had hacked into their Judiciary Committee computer files to get it. Hatch, chairman of the committee, at their request launched a probe into whether anyone on staff had done so.

Last November, Hatch announced he was "shocked and mortified" to find that at least one GOP committee staffer had improperly accessed the files and had been placed on administrative leave. That junior aide has never been identified, but others have said the aide was from Utah and has since quit.

The next casualty was Miranda, a former Judiciary Committee aide who was a legal counsel to Frist overseeing judicial confirmations. He told the Knoxville News Sentinel

he left "so as not to distract the majority leader from pursuing the needed legislative agenda . . . I certainly did not want to burden Sen. Frist with matters related to my work on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch."

"Hatch took the bait of Democrats, hook, line and sinker and changed the subject. They should be looking at the content of the memos. It show the corruption of the judicial confirmation system. That is not a small thing," complained Kay Daly, president of the conservative Coalition for a Fair Judiciary.

She said talk is that no laws were broken by GOP staffers and that a glitch in committee computer systems allowed GOP staffers to easily view the memos. She said she is especially sad to see Miranda go.

"He was the victim of a witch hunt. He was incredibly effective at his job, and Democrats wanted to see him go," she said. "A couple of staffers saw the memos and realized the level of collusion going on . . . Rather than pinning a medal on them, they are looking for the highest tree to hang them from."

Adam Elggren, spokesman for Hatch, said the senator will not comment on the ongoing probe by the Senate sergeant at arms into the hacking. He released a statement from Hatch in defense of attacks coming from the political right.

"I have always been known as a straight shooter," Hatch said. "I'm going to do what's right, not what might be politically expedient in the short term."

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But Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, said, "I am outraged how he has handled it. It is about as bad as can be . . . Hatch seems much more interested in having (ranking committee Democrat Patrick) Leahy love him than in doing justice or having the respect of his Republican colleagues."

Weyrich, whose financial support helped Hatch in his first run for the Senate back in 1976, said, "Nothing surprises me any more with Hatch. I just expect nothing from him, and that's what I get. I don't ever expect him to do what's right, and I'm not disappointed. Weyrich has recently criticized Hatch for his stand on such matters as fetal tissue research.

Other conservatives who have attacked Hatch on the hacking matter range from the Law Enforcement Alliance of America to national radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.