Rita M. Lavelle, ousted chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's embattled hazardous waste cleanup program, emerged from seclusion yesterday to defend her record and say she has "absolutely no idea" why EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch fired her.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Lavelle, 35, also:
* Denied that she had written what Gorsuch called an "infamous memo" found in Lavelle's personal computer referring to the business community as "the primary constituents of this administration."
* Denied that she had tried to obstruct congressional investigations of her multibillion-dollar hazardous waste program. To the contrary, she said she had offered to open her files to a congressional subcommittee investigating charges of mismanagement, conflict of interest and political favoritism, but that EPA's general counsel had ordered documents withheld in the case, which has now led to an unprecedented contempt citation against Gorsuch and a constitutional confrontation between Congress and the executive branch.
* Denied that she was involved in shredding copies of those documents, or that she had attempted to stymie a second congressional subcommittee that has requested her appointment calendars for a separate investigation.
Lavelle confirmed that she removed her calendars and appointment records from the agency after her ouster, but said that they are intact and will be made available to congressional committees that have requested them.
Now unemployed with no immediate job prospects, Lavelle quipped of the sought-after calendars: "I'm going to sell copies of them. Unfortunately for my personal life, they are very boring. I was always working."
Gorsuch recently said she fired Lavelle because she had "lost confidence in her," in part because of the pro-business tilt expressed in the much-publicized memo. Gorsuch proclaimed at a news conference two days after Lavelle's firing: "I don't view the business community as our main constituents. I view the American people as our major constituents."
But Lavelle contended that she is being accused unfairly of leaning toward industry more than Gorsuch or other political appointees in the agency. She said some EPA officials are trying to "get me" in hopes of defusing the growing controversy over the agency.
"The primary constituency of the agency is the American public," said Lavelle, who was accompanied by her attorney, James J. Bierbower. "I think I was doing a heck of a job protecting the American public . . . .And everyone in the agency agrees that part of the American public is business."
Lavelle also said she had attempted to avert the historic confrontation between EPA and Congress over sensitive documents being withheld from a congressional investigation of the agency's $1.6 billion Superfund program, whose goal is to clean up the nation's worst hazardous waste dumps and to prosecute the companies responsible.
Gorsuch, acting under orders from President Reagan after advice from the Justice Department and EPA general counsel Robert M. Perry, announced in December that she would withhold dozens of documents on the most dangerous dumps, prompting the full House to take the unprecedented step of citing her for contempt of Congress.
"Those documents were in my program office. We had everything open and then Robert M. Perry took over," Lavelle said. "I was meeting with Congressman Elliott H. Levitas the Georgia Democrat who is chairman of the subcommittee that sponsored the contempt citation . I said, 'Come on over. We have nothing to hide.' "
"My office had nothing to do with" the decision to withhold the documents, Lavelle said. "It was Perry and the Justice Department."
Lavelle said she agrees with administration arguments that some of the documents could jeopardize potential enforcement actions if released, but she said she is not sure whether all the documents being withheld fall in that category.
A former employe of companies regulated by the hazardous waste program, Lavelle said she was not influenced by those industry ties and did not manipulate her program to help Republicans, as five House subcommittees and a Senate committee have suggested in announcing inquiries into EPA.
She also said she had nothing to do with the shredding of documents in her office in the weeks after the contempt citation was voted.
"I do not have a shredder, I did not have a shredder, I have never seen a shredder," said Lavelle, responding to EPA acknowledgements that copies of documents subpoenaed last year by the House had been shredded recently.
Lavelle refused to criticize Gorsuch or other high-level managers at the agency--"they can defend themselves and I can defend Rita Lavelle"--but she said she welcomes reports that the White House "is examining the dimensions of the management situation at EPA and the circumstances surrounding termination of my appointment."
"The examination will have my full cooperation," said Lavelle, who appeared composed and congenial in the interview in Bierbower's Northwest Washington office. Lavelle was hired last year by Gorsuch as assistant EPA administrator in charge of the Superfund program.
"I have absolutely no idea why she fired me," Lavelle said of Gorsuch, who summoned the hazardous waste chief to her office nine days ago and asked for her resignation. "There was no management problem. There was no personal problem . . . . Every time the administrator gave a speech, it seemed that she was bragging about our program.
"The ironic thing is that I was late for my firing because I was up on the Hill defending the administrator," said Lavelle, adding that she had met that afternoon with members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee who last year voted to cite Gorsuch for contempt of Congress.
"I was out doing my job. I was cleaning up hazardous wastes. While I was out getting results, someone was getting me," said Lavelle. "I steadfastly refused to resign" when Gorsuch asked her to step down. Three days later, Reagan fired Lavelle at Gorsuch's request, escalating scrutiny of the hazardous waste program.
"I can appreciate the difficulty my decision not to resign created for the White House," Lavelle said. "However, I concluded that resignation would be tantamount to admitting I had something to hide. I most certainly do not."
Gorsuch's outspoken criticism of Lavelle in the days since her firing has triggered a backlash of sympathy for the ousted official within the EPA. Several officials who in the past were critical of Lavelle have said she has been made a "fall guy" who was simply carrying out the policies of Gorsuch and the Reagan administration.
Even a combative "whistle blower" on Lavelle's staff, who is suing her for illegally harrassing him, came to her defense in the wake of Gorsuch's news conference.
"It's not fair for the administration to make her the scapegoat," said Hugh Kaufman, who added that he does not believe Lavelle is responsible for the political controversy enveloping the agency.
Lavelle said yesterday that one of her subordinates compiled what Gorsuch called "the infamous memo," which accused general counsel Perry of overzealous enforcement efforts that were "systematically alienating" the business community. She refused to identify the author of the memo, which detailed several of Lavelle's run-ins with Perry, and said she does not know who leaked it.
Lavelle said the notes were compiled for her own use in preparation for a meeting with Gorsuch to discuss Perry. She said she had asked Gorsuch's chief of staff John Daniel for two months to schedule the meeting but had been unable to get an appointment.
At the time, Gorsuch was deeply involved in the contempt case.
Levitas, chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee's oversight subcommittee, met for 3 1/2 hours yesterday with Deputy Attorney General Edward Schmults and Justice attorney Carol Dinkens, head of the Lands Division, to discuss a proposed administration compromise to allow the House to see certain disputed hazardous waste documents and head off the contempt case.
No agreement was reached, but Levitas called it "a good meeting" and said the two sides would meet again after he discusses the proposal with other House leaders this week.
In the interview, Lavelle confirmed that she asked her staff to consult with asbestos industry experts in preparing a case to force the cleanup of an Arizona community contaminated with asbestos wastes, as another memo from the EPA files indicates. But she said she intended only that industry officials review the scientific sampling techniques used in measuring the asbestos, not the "evidence" as the memo said.
She also answered criticism that the agency had "let industry off the hook" in a settlement with 24 companies that agreed to put up $7.7 million to clean up part of the contamination they caused in dumping hazardous wastes in Seymour, Ind. "It was a good settlement, and I'm proud of it," said Lavelle, who contended that the site would not have been cleaned up if she had chosen to sue the companies instead of settling amicably out of court.
Lavelle denied that she had improperly influenced an agency decision on the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a dangerous dump site near Los Angeles. Lavelle said she withdrew from the case as soon as she discovered that her former employer, Aerojet General Corp., was one of more than 200 firms that could be forced to pay for the cleanup.
She said she was shown a list of the potential defendants in the case on June 18, and "I said: 'Oh, Aerojet. I've got to recuse myself.' " Lavelle said she signed a letter disqualifying herself from the case on June 19.
Other EPA officials said Lavelle continued to take part in meetings on Stringfellow despite the letter. Responding to the accusation, she said: "I did not leave the room every time the word Stringfellow was mentioned. We have thousands of sites. Am I supposed to leave the room every time the word came up? I absolutely did not take part in the decision-making process."
Lavelle also denied telling EPA colleagues that White House counselor Edwin Meese III was her godfather, as some have said she did. "He is not my godfather. I have the utmost respect and highest regard for Mr. Meese. He did not get me my job. I was qualified both professionally and politically."
She said Meese hired her when she was just out of college 15 years ago to compile news summaries for then-California Gov. Reagan.
"I wanted to keep our campuses open when everyone else was bombing them. I was an articulate, talented scientist who was going to save the world with DNA research," said Lavelle, adding that she took the job to earn money for graduate school.