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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, contends that Democrats are needlessly holding up the nomination of Lamar Alexander as the new secretary of education while they go on a "fishing expedition" through his financial records.

"This investigation has gone beyond what was necessary to answer any legitimate questions," Hatch wrote to Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., last week.Hatch is the ranking Republican on that committee, and complained Democrats' "inquiry has dedicated itself to finding something even when it is not there . . . I believe the credibility of our committee investigations process is threatened when it begins to take on the characteristics of a fishing expedition."

Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee who is now president of the University of Tennessee, was formally nominated the same day as Labor Secretary Lynn Martin and Drug Policy Director-designee Bob Martinez.

But Martin has been in office for three weeks. Martinez was endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. And Edward R. Madigan - who was nominated as secretary of agriculture a month after Alexander's nomination - was sworn in last Friday.

The comparative slow action for Alexander has Hatch fuming. "All of the plans and initiatives of the department are grinding to a halt while we sit on this important nomination," he wrote Kennedy.

The committee has said it is exploring complicated financial dealings by Alexander, which it says takes time. Questions about Alexander's finances were first raised in his confirmation hearing on Feb. 6 by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio.

Alexander said he would be willing to answer any questions about them, and would rather do it in public. But Metzenbaum said he had not yet formulated his questions, and some were "of a rumor nature" better answered in private.

Hatch said after that, the committee submitted additional questions to the White House counsel that resulted in a supplementary FBI report. Hatch said that after reading it, "There is absolutely nothing to suggest wrongdoing on the part of Gov. Alexander."

But he said the Democratic staff requested additional financial documents twice since then. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported several stock transactions during and after Alexander was governor that netted him large profits from small investments in several companies - none of which did business with the state while he was governor, Alexander said.

Hatch wrote Kennedy, "The committee should take its advise and consent function seriously. But Gov. Alexander has furnished exhaustive explanations and documentation.

"After weeks of review, no evidence whatsoever has turned up to justify a continuance of this exercise or to warrant any caveats or reservations placed on his confirmation. In short, Ted, the committee has fulfilled its responsibility. Let's get the nominee confirmed and on the job."