Environmental Protection Agency officials throughout the country were instructed several weeks ago to assist a program apparently designed to aid President Carter's reelection prospects.
The guidance was issued in an April 30 memo by EPA Deputy Administrator Barbara Blum who said she was organizing an interagency speakers' bureau "to point out the administration's strong record of environmental accomplishments."
The memo, sent to the administrators in each of EPA's 10 regional offices, requested political background information on environmental groups in each state, including "their stances vis-a-vis the administration."
The regional chiefs were also told to list elected officials who could be relied on for help and to submit "unique administration selling points" speakers could use.
The directive caused a stir among a number of EPA officials who regarded its political flavor as improper, if not illegal.
"There was never anything like this from the Nixon folks -- and nothing like this from the Ford people, either," asserted one veteran EPA bureaucrat. "I was surprised to get it from these 'trust me' purists."
Blum, deputy director of Carter's 1976 campaign before her appointment to EPA, could not be reached for comment. She left the country Friday for an international women's conference in Copenhagen. Before leaving, however, she maintained through a spokesman that the new speakers program was not intended to be "a political operation."
"In no case has there been any EPA employe making political speeches or violating the Hatch Act or anything like that," the EPA spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, declared.
Federal laws and regulations generally prohibit government workers from using their official authority or influence to affect the result of an election. In addition, as a Carter White House memo stated last year, "Federal resources may not be used for anything but official purposes." But knowledgeable lawyers said it is often difficult to draw a clear line between what is illegal and what is simply poor taste.
Fitzwater acknowledged that "we wish we had been a little more sensitive to the language" in the April 30 memo.
In it, Blum said the aim of the new speakers' bureau, to be operated out of her office, was "for administration officials to actively pursue speaking opportunities with environmental groups in order to point out the administration's strong record of environmental accomplishments."
"To make this work," she told EPA's regional administrators in the two-page memo, "we need your help. . . ." Blum asked them to supply "constituency background" reports by May 9, including state-by-state listings of environmental groups, their leaders, their effectiveness and influence with state officials and any "local rivalries . . . we need to be aware of."
In addition, she said she wanted the EPA bureaucrats to "identify the elected officials we should build around/rely on to reach the constituency." She also asked whether there were any key policy decisions, programs or grants that could be used as "unique administration selling points to include in speeches for reaching the constituency in that particular state." t
Fitzwater said, "unfortunately, it [the memo] was interpreted by some of the regional people as being political -- because it's a political year."
At least two regional administrators, Paul DeFalco Jr. of San Francisco and Donald P. Dubois of Seattle, objected. Fitzwater said both were assured "that this was not a political operation."
DeFalco refused to speak with a reporter. One source said "they [Epa officials in Washington] marked him down as 'uncooperative'" because of the vigor of his protest.
Dubois said he called Washington the day he got the memo because "I couldn't believe the memo meant literally what was said. I felt it was inappropriate." He said he was told not to worry and his office produced "a straight report" simply listing environmental groups in his region, dates of their meetings and other innocuous details.
One regional chief, John McGuire of Chicago, went farther, detailing various "selling points" and naming "true environmentalists" among officials in his six-state area. But most of the other reports were quite bland. "Maybe they were smart enough not to put anything [political] in there," one EPA official said.
As a result of the flap, Fitzwater said the speakers' bureau, run by Blum aide Tresa Smith, has been "cut back" to a straightforward processing of requests and arranging for speakers on environmental issues. He said Blum merely wanted to strengthen EPA's effectiveness and improve coordination with other government agencies that have similar interests. Fitzwater insisted it was "a misunderstanding" for anyone to have thought that "this was just to tout [the Carter] campaign."
"Nobody's going out to make these speeches for political reasons," he declared.