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The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has launched an investigation into the federal witness protection program, based on information developed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The committee has scheduled a hearing on June 18 to question protected witnesses, officials of the Justice Department, which operates the witness program, and other law enforcement officers about problems.Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the committee that shares budgetary oversight of the Justice Department with a similar House committee, said he called the hearing after learning details of the newspaper's investigation.

The hearing will mark the first time in history the full committee has summoned testimony on the witness protection program that was started in 1970.

"Frankly, from what I've heard ... we really ought to have done that (had hearings) before. I think we need to carefully evaluate the function of the program to make sure it's being operated properly," Hatch said.

A House subcommittee last held hearings on the topic 14 years ago after a protected witness, released from prison, killed six people on a cross-country rampage.

Among those who testified then were victims or families of victims of protected witnesses who had been released after testifying about other criminals and then went on to commit more crimes, including murder. Several made emotional pleas that the program be shut down because it endangered innocent citizens.

The Justice Department response to Congress was that the program is needed to enable lawmen to break up organized crime operations. Officials did promise to drastically scale back the program, using it only in rare instances.

Instead, the program grew from 324 admitted to witness protection in 1982 to 553 admitted in 1992. It also grew in cost. Last year, the bill was $53 million - 80 percent more than when the hearings were held.

The cost in pain and suffering has grown with the program. There are numerous victims of crime committed by protected witnesses.

When the Senate committee begins its hearings, the focus will be much the same as it was 14 years ago for the House. Hatch said his committee will want to know if the protected witnesses are monitored properly.

"I don't think we can be in the position of protecting witnesses who prey on others. If that's the case, I want to know it. We just want to know the truth," Hatch said.

He said balancing the rights of innocent citizens against career criminals - 97 percent of protected witnesses have criminal backgrounds - who provided damning testimony against their confederates in exchange for freedom is an admittedly difficult task.

"My understanding is that few, if any, of the witnesses are choir boys, but with reports of protected witnesses engaging in further criminal activity, I think it is mandatory for us to assess the threat to the community by these people," Hatch said.

In addition to revealing the lax monitoring of the criminals released into the witness protection program, the investigative series also showed:

- The program has helped some protected witnesses leave prison wealthy. Some are permitted to keep the money and other assets they accumulated during their lives of crime.

This is a strategy contrary to the Justice Department's own ballyhooed system of seizing the property of drug dealers and other criminals.

- Even while protected witnesses are still in prison, they are treated to perks that other prisoners would never get, including free phone calls anywhere in the world and a prison-sponsored anonymous bank account that allows them to purchase nearly anything that can be delivered.

- Drug use and alcohol abuse is rampant in the witness protection prison units.

Two systems of justice seem to have grown up under the program. High-profile criminals whose testimony garners headlines often get big-money deals and significant help in forging new lives.

Small-time criminals say they are left only with broken promises after they are used as witnesses. Many claim the government's inaction has put them in dire danger.

Hatch said this is another area his committee will examine.

"When some witnesses claim they haven't been treated properly by the program ... abandoned ... and not supervised and not helped, I want to get to the bottom of it," he said.

Seasoned convicts have learned that while snitching once has got them off death row, snitching again and again can win freedom, even if the information they are selling isn't true. Those who get caught in the lies they traded for freedom are usually given their freedom anyway and are almost never prosecuted for perjury.

Because the program is based on keeping secret the identities and whereabouts of protected witnesses, hardly anything about the program has been open to public scrutiny. Even Hatch, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for 20 years, said his only previous information about the program had come from officials of the Justice Department who have contended that the witness program has been functioning well.

He said annual reports submitted during the budgetary process have never disclosed problems.

When the Senate hearings are concluded, the committee will decide if it should alter the program. Hatch hopes the hearings will mark the beginning of the end to the lax oversight of the witness program.

"We have an obligation of oversight and we need to have the function of oversight."

Officials of the Justice Department did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.

Another inquiry into the program, by the Justice Department's inspector general, is already under way. It is focusing on drug use and other illegal activities at the protected witness prison units, especially the Mesa Unit in Phoenix.

Some callers who said they are in witness units say officials have tightened controls over use of telephones and the buying clubs since questions were raised about the operations. Prison officials have refused to comment.