A Justice Department unit may decide to pursue an ethics examination of Attorney General Edwin Meese III despite the fact that he is resigning, a department spokesman acknowledged Wednesday.

"The Office of Professional Responsibility may open a case anytime it wishes for present or former department employees if Mike Shaheen feels that it's called for," department spokesman Patrick Korten said when questioned about the possibility that the office, which is headed by Shaheen, might do so in regard to Meese.Korten said that "I don't personally see what purpose it would serve in this particular case" to carry out such an ethics review, "but that's entirely up to" Shaheen.

When pressed to explain why it would serve no purpose, Korten said that "the main task of OPR is to ensure the integrity and adherence to laws and regulations by department officials," a reference to the fact that Meese is leaving in late July or early August.

On Tuesday, department aides close to Meese, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there would be no ethics review of the attorney general

because he is stepping down. But Wednesday, other department sources said that such assertions are flatly incorrect and that an ethics review of Meese was a distinct possibility. Those sources, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said OPR in the past has launched reviews of employees who are leaving and followed those reviews through to a conclusion after the employees left, and Korten subsequently acknowledged that OPR investigators "certainly have the authority to do that."

Meanwhile, Meese said that any questions raised about his ethics in a court-appointed investigator's 830-page probe of his conduct would be just excess verbiage.

Nonetheless, Meese said he would respond.

Asked about reports that independent counsel James McKay's report - delivered in secret to a federal judge hours before Meese resigned Tuesday - paints an unflattering portrait of the attorney general but does not suggest any illegal activities, Meese said:

"That's really immaterial because whatever may be in the report along that line would only be commentary in his opinion. It would have no legal force."

Meese, making the rounds of network television's three major morning news programs, said McKay's only charter had been to determine if the attorney general violated any laws.

"He has now found that there was . . . no criminal conduct of any sort on my part," Meese said. "So anything else that might be said is merely surplusage."

Asked if presenting material that suggests unethical behavior was, in his opinion, excess verbiage, Meese replied:

"Certainly it is. It's not his job to go into ethical questions or ethical issues at all."

Noting that McKay is expected to turn the results of his probe over to the Justice Department for an ethics review, Meese said he doubted that any department probe would be conducted.

"I know of nothing of that sort," he said.