President Reagan yesterday backed away from his statement that he would provide disputed Environmental Protection Agency documents to Congress because of allegations of "wrongdoing" at the agency, and instead reasserted his claim to executive privilege over the records.
The turnabout came after Reagan said at his nationally televised news conference Wednesday night that, "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."
White House spokesman Larry Speakes insisted yesterday that Reagan has not abandoned the executive privilege claim. He corrected Reagan's suggestion that he would offer directly to Congress documents involving possible wrongdoing by EPA officials.
Instead, Speakes said, the records will be submitted first to the Justice Department, which will then decide "whether it is necessary" to make them available for congressional review.
Reagan met for 15 minutes in the Oval Office yesterday with embattled EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch, but White House officials ordered that no details of the meeting be revealed.
At the same time, Rita M. Lavelle, ousted chief of the hazardous waste cleanup program, did not honor a subpoena to appear before a House subcommittee investigating charges of conflicts of interest and political favoritism in the operation of her program, one of six Hill investigations of EPA.
Lavelle may have violated agency regulations by allowing executives of chemical companies to pay for frequent meals at some of Washington's most expensive restaurants, according to an EPA official. Details on Page A2.
These developments occurred as the administration remained locked in negotiations over congressional efforts to review the disputed documents on the agency's $1.6 billion hazardous waste cleanup program.
Talks are expected to continue today between the White House and Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), chairman of a subcommittee investigating the agency.
Assistant Attorney General Carol Dinkins, head of the Justice Department's Land and Natural Resources Division, delivered two tape recordings of EPA hazardous waste meetings to Levitas on Wednesday.
Aides to Levitas said they had not yet listened to the tapes, but were told they were made during a session on EPA enforcement strategies for cleaning up the Stringfellow Acid Pits, one of the most dangerous chemical dumps in the nation, near Riverside, Calif. Levitas said he did not know of the existence of the tapes until Dinkins gave them to him unsolicited and that the administration was concerned that they not be made public though a leak.
"Tapes would be a throwback to another era," he said, referring to the White House recordings of President Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
On the executive privilege claim, Speakes spent a half-hour yesterday attempting to clarify to reporters the president's remarks on the EPA documents at his news conference.
Reagan had delivered a long answer on the controversy, suggesting strongly that he was willing to give up his claim to executive privilege over the EPA documents.
"But now with this thing that has come up suggesting that there might be wrongdoing, we will never invoke executive privilege to cover up wrongdoing," Reagan said.
But Speakes said the administration policy was not as Reagan had described it.
First, he said Reagan had no intention of relaxing his claim to executive privilege over the documents.
Speakes said that administration officials are talking with Levitas about an arrangement that would allow the White House to claim executive privilege while working out a device that satisfies members of Congress who want to see the documents. Speakes said the administration wants to "protect" the principles laid down by both sides. Speakes acknowledged that Reagan had not left this impression at his news conference. But he added, "This is what's going on today."
Secondly, Speakes said the administration is not prepared to directly furnish to Congress EPA documents if there is a "suspicion" of wrongdoing, as the president had said.
Rather, the documents will "promptly" be referred to the Justice Department if there is "evidence" of wrongdoing, Speakes said.
He said that administration officials who are reviewing the documents have so far not discovered any evidence of wrongdoing in them.
But six congressional panels are investigating charges of conflict of interest and political favoritism in the agency's hazardous waste cleanup program, and members claim that the documents could contain key evidence to prove or disprove those allegations.
Speakes yesterday brushed aside suggestions from reporters that Reagan had changed his position on executive privilege.
The administration policy "did not change before he made his statement, it did not change when he made his statement, it did not change after he made his statement," Speakes said.
The Gorsuch trip to the White House yesterday was shrouded in unusual secrecy.
Speakes said in addition to the meeting with Reagan, she met separately with White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, counselor Edwin Meese III, counsel Fred F. Fielding, and presidential aide Craig Fuller.
Reagan's remarks at his news conference led Levitas and other House members seeking the documents to believe that an end to the constitutional confrontation was near. But after Speakes corrected Reagan's remarks, it became clear that the standoff was unresolved.
Levitas and other chairmen of subcommittees investigating the EPA, including Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) and James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), said Reagan used inaccurate statistics in describing the agency's "splendid" record and activities over the last two years.
Reagan said "less than 100" hazardous waste documents had been withheld from House subcommittees, but EPA officials have said the number is probably in the thousands. Administration officials have said they are still compiling files of papers to be withheld, although they have so far listed only 70 in an inventory supplied to Reagan.
Reagan said the EPA had arranged 23 settlements in cases against the dumpers of hazardous wastes, but agency officials said they knew of only two.
Speakes, asked for details of the Justice Department investigation that Reagan announced Wednesday night, said the probe would focus on charges of conflict of interest by EPA officials and the shredding of documents that had been subpoenaed by Congress. The Justice Department would not comment on any aspect of the investigation. A senior official said before the news conference that the department entered the EPA affair "with great reluctance."
House members have called on U.S. Attorney Stanley S. Harris to investigate the shredding and other disclosures of EPA activities in the wake of Lavelle's firing. Harris said yesterday that he would defer to the Justice Department inquiry.
"The bureau FBI is working on it, and if they come up with anything, they'll bring it to us," Harris said.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the oversight and investigations subcommittee that subpoenaed Lavelle, said yesterday after she failed to appear that he would consider bringing contempt-of-Congress charges against her. Aides to Dingell said they will attempt to serve another subpoena on Lavelle or her lawyer today.
"The patience of the committee is wearing somewhat thin," Dingell said. "We will not tolerate acts which frustrate the will of the Congress."
"She can't get away with that," one of the aides said. The subpoena was served Wednesday on Lavelle's lawyer, James A. Bierbower, who has said he plans to make her available to all congressional panels seeking to interview her.
Gorsuch delivered more of Lavelle's calendars, telephone logs and personal papers to Dingell's subcommittee. The materials were subpoenaed, along with 36 current and former EPA employes, for an investigation on charges of corruption and political favoritism involving the Stringfellow Acid Pits cleanup strategy.