President Reagan disclosed last night that he has ordered a "complete investigation by the Justice Department into every charge" of "wrongdoing" at the Environmental Protection Agency.
He also said at his news conference that he might no longer invoke the doctrine of executive privilege to keep EPA documents from Congress because of the allegations. "We will never invoke executive privilege to cover up wrongdoing," he said.
But Reagan defended embattled EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch and said her agency had a "splendid record" over the last two years. He asked that "accusations" of mismanagement and possible conflicts of interest against EPA officials not "be taken as proof of guilt."
The Justice Department investigation apparently will include five questions of possible misconduct involving former EPA hazardous waste chief Rita M. Lavelle, which were referred to Justice by Gorsuch both before and after Reagan fired Lavelle Feb. 7. Lavelle has said she has done nothing wrong.
Lavelle's appointment calendars, copies of which were made available last night to congressional committees and reporters, show she had repeatedly dined with officials from manufacturing and chemical industries affected by EPA actions.
Lavelle and other EPA officials have been accused by congressional critics of being too close to industry and agreeing to "sweetheart" cleanup deals with firms that have deposited poisonous chemicals in hazardous waste dumps. Details on Page A2.
It was also learned yesterday that a large chemical waste firm, represented by a lawyer who was then a top adviser to Gorsuch, was able to dump 1,500 barrels of flammable solvents in a Denver landfill last year after Gorsuch lifted a federal ban on such dumping.
Reagan's comments came after a day of negotiations with Congress over the release of disputed EPA documents about the operation of its $1.6 billion Superfund to clean up the nation's most dangerous chemical waste dumps.
Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), chairman of a subcommittee seeking the documents, said last night that no agreement has yet been reached to settle the constitutional dispute between Congress and the White House over the documents.
But Reagan suggested strongly that he would allow Levitas and others in Congress to see the documents.
"I can no longer insist on executive privilege if there's a suspicion in the minds of the people that maybe it is being used to cover some wrongdoing," the president said. "And that we will never stand for."
Questioned at the begining of his news conference about the EPA controversy, Reagan defended the original decision to claim executive privilege for the EPA documents, saying "it would be disastrous to law enforcement, to our own efforts, and to the cleanup of these places if some of the information in these investigative reports was made public."
The president claimed he had originally offered access to the documents to congressional committees, "and they refused."
In fact, the administration offered to "describe" the documents, but not show them. Later, when the House suggested that some members look at the documents on a confidential basis, the administration rejected it.
Levitas said last night that Reagan made an "egregiously inaccurate" representation of the events leading up to the historic contempt-of-Congress citation against Gorsuch for refusing to turn over the documents. A federal court later threw out the administration's lawsuit seeking to block the contempt case, and ordered the two sides to compromise.
Although yesterday's negotiations apparently failed to produce a final agreement, senior administration officials said they are "anxious to compromise" with the House over the disputed documents. The White House has offered to allow Levitas and a Republican member of the subcommittee to review the documents. But no one else on Capitol Hill would be permitted to see them, according to the officials.
"We are anxious to compromise and settle the matter and we are reasonably optimistic that this can be accomplished," a White House official said. "This is what the court has asked us to do. We're going to make every effort to do that."
Yesterday's meeting with Levitas, which continued into the evening, included White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, Deputy Attorney General Edward C. Schmults, and Assistant Attorney General Carol Dinkins, chief of the Justice Department's land and water resources division.
A White House official said that despite the compromise negotiations, the administration still believes "we were absolutely right in asserting executive privilege. The case plows new ground. These were raw files. Is the Congress entitled to raw data from the SEC or FBI files? We have no question that our position is right.
"But the case has gone beyond that," the official added. "It's much more than that now. Other factors are involved."
One White House official said the current goal of senior officials is to "get to the bottom" of the EPA episode. Another informed official added, "We have no reason to believe anything improper happened, but we're going to take a complete look to make certain."
To this end, Fielding has been instrumental in bringing the Justice Department into the case, officials said. It was unclear what role the White House had in the referral by Gorsuch to Justice of the questions of misconduct by Lavelle, whom Reagan fired at the request of Gorsuch.
Some White House officials said yesterday they were unaware, at the time Reagan fired Lavelle, of the Gorsuch letters to Justice.
One official said the Lavelle matter came up at the regular White House personnel meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 2, and was presented routinely by presidential counselor Edwin Meese III. "There was this management mess at EPA which Gorsuch wanted to solve by firing Lavelle," one official said. "It was approved without much discussion and the president signed off on it."
Meese said last night that he didn't know of the Gorsuch letters at the time and didn't learn of them until told by a reporter.
Reagan also said last night the White House is "talking about" sending Gorsuch some help in dealing with the congressional inquiries. Administration officials said Reagan is considering the creation of a "special legislative counsel" at EPA to coordinate answering subpoenas and other matters stemming from six congressional investigations into the agency.
Reagan said he wanted "someone to be of help and counsel" to assist Gorsuch so she can devote her time to running the agency. Administration officials said the special counsel would not have investigative authority.