Washington -- Some months ago, writing about the Inslaw case, I said the affair was beginning to stink to high heaven. With the death of Danny Casolaro, a free-lance investigative reporter, the stench grows worse.
Temporarily, the verdict seems to be that Mr. Casolaro killed himself in a Martinsburg, W.Va., hotel room two weeks ago. No one who knew him accepts that explanation. He was an outgoing, talkative, vital person; he was on top of a major break in a story he had been pursuing for eight years; he was headed for a family party. Everything about the story rings falsely.
Mr. Casolaro was not well-known within the Washington press corps, but editors who did know him have described him as a dogged reporter who would not leave the trail of a good story. In investigating the Inslaw case, Mr. Casolaro was on to the best story of his life. He had a book in the making.
I have been writing about the Inslaw case off and on for the past two years. It involves the scandalous treatment of Bill Hamilton, a Washington inventor and computer expert. His company, known Inslaw, developed a software program known as Promis. It worked so superbly that he sold it to the Department of Justice for use in tracking the flow of court cases through the offices of U.S. attorneys.
It was a big contract for a tiny firm, but Mr. Hamilton's jubilation was short-lived. Officials at the Department of Justice, including a former Inslaw employee whom Mr. Hamilton had fired, suddenly began finding petty objections to the contract. The department withheld payments. Driven into bankruptcy court, Inslaw fought back. A bankruptcy judge, after prolonged hearings, ruled flatly that the government had ''stolen'' Promis through ''trickery, fraud and deceit.'' That judgment was upheld on appeal to a federal district court.
All this happened while Ed Meese was attorney general. Mr. Meese has denied any personal involvement, but officials under him launched a cover-up that continues to this day. Under Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, the department resisted an impartial investigation at every step. When a Senate subcommittee attempted to look into the affair, the department stonewalled. When a House committee tried its hand, Mr. Thornburgh refused to testify.
Something stinks. Promis was sold exclusively to the U.S. Department of Justice, but the program has turned up in Canada and in various nations in Europe. Someone is marketing stolen goods.
There is reason to believe that Danny Casolaro went to Martinsburg to crack the case. He had told friends that Inslaw was part of an ''octopus'' of criminal activities in high places, including the BCCI and the savings and loan scandals.
Mr. Hamilton and other friends of Mr. Casolaro have tried to reconstruct his last hours. They are convinced the suicide was faked. They see murder.
On the night of Monday, Aug. 5, Mr. Casolaro spoke by telephone with three separate confidants. He told them he had just returned from interviewing a source in West Virginia. He now knew the Inslaw story, but he would have to go back to Martinsburg to wrap it up.
Mr. Casolaro drove back to West Virginia on Thursday, Aug. 8, and checked into Room 517 at the Sheraton Hotel. On Friday evening he telephoned his mother in northern Virginia to say he ** would be late in getting back for a family birthday party, but he was headed home.
About 1 o'clock on Saturday the 10th, hotel maids found Mr. Casolaro's body in a bloody bathtub. Reports of the circumstances are both sketchy and conflicting. Reportedly there were crude slash marks on each arm. Arteries had been severed. By one account Mr. Casolaro had used a broken beer bottle; by another account, a broken glass. In a third account, we read that a razor blade was found beneath his body. Mr. Casolaro's brother, a surgeon, said he never could get Danny to have a physical examination because Danny wouldn't let his finger be pricked for a blood sample. Without permission from anyone, West Virginia officials ordered Mr. Casolaro's body speedily embalmed.
There was a note: ''I'm sorry, especially to my son.'' Mr. Casolaro was a novelist and a writer of short stories. Associates say he had a florid style. The note, if authentic, seems completely out of character. Mr. Casolaro was known to carry stacks of manila folders with him. Police said there were no papers in his room or in his car. A witness says he met with Mr. Casolaro about 4 o'clock Friday afternoon, and the reporter had the folders at that time. The witness gave Mr. Casolaro certain documents unrelated to the Inslaw case. The documents have disappeared.
Former Attorney General Elliot Richardson, Inslaw's chief counsel, has asked the FBI for a full-blown investigation. Under the circumstances, nothing less could suffice.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.