Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne M. Burford yesterday mounted an extraordinary campaign to save her job as a powerful lineup of administration officials and Republican congressmen abandoned her cause.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) called for her ouster, and the Justice Department announced that it no longer would represent the embattled EPA chief in her contempt-of-Congress case or in the six congressional investigations of alleged wrongdoing at the agency.
But a spokesman for President Reagan in San Francisco said yesterday that Reagan reaffirmed "full confidence" in Burford despite a series of published interviews in the last two days in which she and senior EPA officials anonymously blamed the agency's problems on bungling by White House and Justice Department officials.
"He hasn't changed his position yet," a White House official said of Reagan, who is known for reluctance to dismiss loyal subordinates. "I think he's going to take some persuading."
Another aide added: "She's going to fight this to the bitter end."
However, a spokesman for Michel, one of Burford's defenders on the House floor during the vote to hold her in contempt of Congress last December, said, "Her credibility has been seriously undermined and with her [in office], the ability of the agency to function is jeopardized. It's a drag on the administration in general."
At the same time yesterday, the Justice Department confirmed that it is investigating reports that Burford claimed last August at a Republican luncheon aboard the yacht Sequoia that she had blocked the cleanup of a California toxic waste dump last summer to damage the U.S. Senate campaign of Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
Burford said through a spokesman that she has "no recollection" of discussing the California hazardous waste dump, Stringfellow Acid Pits, at the Aug. 4 luncheon. The dump is a focus of congressional probes into charges that the EPA manipulated its $1.6 billion "Superfund" toxic waste cleanup program to help Republican candidates.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department's decision to pull out of the contempt-of-Congress case came under heavy fire from senior EPA officials and members of Congress from both parties as a cowardly retreat that one Burford aide termed "the most cold-blooded, treacherous act of political callousness I've ever seen."
Burford acted under Reagan's orders, with the advice of the Justice Department, when she invoked executive privilege last December and refused to surrender dozens of documents on hazardous waste dumps that had been subpoenaed by a congressional subcommittee. This prompted the House contempt citation.
"I think it's just deplorable. The Justice Department instigated this whole matter," the official continued. "They're the ones that came up with the idea of claiming executive privilege. They talked the president into it. They suckered Burford into it. I think it's incredible that they're suddenly worried about wearing two hats."
The EPA attack on Justice yesterday appeared to be part of a campaign by Burford and her aides to shift the blame for the EPA controversy outside the agency. Several senior EPA aides said in interviews that Burford wanted from the start to cooperate with Congress rather than to invoke executive privilege.
They said she warned Reagan not to take the Justice Department's advice, but acted as the "good soldier" when he instructed her to withhold certain documents. They said she also urged him this week to give congressional investigators unlimited access to her agency's documents although Reagan continues to insist on certain restrictions.
Several EPA officials said the Justice Department was "looking for a crusade" on the executive privilege issue and picked EPA as its pawn.
The department has a different view. "They're just sort of striking out. They're looking for someone to blame," said a senior Justice Department official when asked to comment on the EPA accusations.
"We weren't looking for a case," another department official said. "We never thought it would get to the stage of a contempt citation. But when the House voted contempt, you're damned straight we were looking for a case."
Deputy Attorney General Edward C. Schmults and Assistant Attorney General Carol E. Dinkins informed Burford of their decision to withdraw from the contempt case in a reportedly "stormy session" late Thursday at EPA headquarters. Accompanying Burford were several of her aides and her husband, Interior Department official Robert F. Burford.
Justice Department officials said the decision had been in the works since last month, when Reagan ordered Justice to probe "all charges of wrongdoing" at the EPA. It became final in a meeting early this week with Attorney General William French Smith and was cleared with White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, the officials said.
A White House official said the Justice Department reached the decision on its own and did not act under orders from the White House.
Justice Department officials said they were forced to withdraw as Burford's lawyers in the contempt case to ensure that their simultaneous investigation into charges of wrongdoing in the EPA "will have public credibility and acceptance."
"Our role has changed dramatically in the last two weeks," said a senior Justice Department official, who asked to remain anonymous. "This is no longer a matter of defending her on a claim of executive privilege. We are now in the role of investigating the agency. It is simply inconsistent with that role to be representing someone you are investigating. You can't wear two hats."
Noting that FBI agents have been interviewing EPA officials for more than two weeks as part of the investigation, another official said: "We had EPA employes calling Justice and saying: The FBI wants to see me. Should I talk to them?' What were we supposed to say?"
In its role as the lawyer for the U.S. government, the Justice Department has represented Burford and the EPA in court and before Congress. However, in the wake of the latest developments, a senior department official sought to put distance between the department and Burford, saying Justice never technically "represented her" in the contempt-of-Congress case.
"A more accurate explanation was that we were explaining the president's position on executive privilege," the official said. "We weren't acting as Anne Burford's counsel on Stringfellow Acid Pits or other cases."
Rep. Guy V. Molinari (R-N.Y.), the ranking minority member of the House Public Works subcommittee that brought the contempt citation against Burford, said the department's move "conveys an impression that the Justice Department now believes that she and other officials at EPA might have been guilty of some wrongdoing. She has been put in a box by Justice. And after she has been put in a box, the department is abandoning ship and telling her and EPA that they're on their own. I think some explanations are owed."
Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), the subcommittee chairman, recalled that Assistant Attorney General Theodore Olson sat beside Gorsuch at a hearing last year and instructed her not to provide the documents.
"I get the feeling I'm the invited guest at an Alice in Wonderland tea party, and the Mad Hatter has just run in with more information," Levitas said at an investigative hearing on the agency's hazardous waste cleanup program. "I frankly at this point don't know what to make of it, except that it's got a most peculiar aroma."
With the Justice Department out of the case, the status of the president's executive privilege claim was unclear. Administration officials said Burford will meet early next week with the White House to determine who will represent her when she appears next Thursday under subpoena before a House subcommittee that is seeking hundreds of documents from her hazardous waste cleanup program.
Several EPA officials said angrily they have halted the process of screening documents for congressional review. Justice Department officials said, however, that they will continue to help the EPA screen the documents, but will ensure that lawyers involved in the screening "wall themselves off" from the investigation into other EPA activities.
In other developments yesterday:
* A senior EPA official said Burford had resisted White House pressure to hire Rita M. Lavelle, the chief of the agency's hazardous waste cleanup program who was fired Feb. 7 by Reagan. The White House personnel office ordered Burford to hire Lavelle, the official said, although EPA chief of staff John E. Daniel had concluded that Lavelle was not qualified for the job.
The official said Lavelle "bragged" to several EPA colleagues that Reagan counselor "Ed Meese forced Anne to hire her." Lavelle worked for Reagan as a press aide when he was governor of California. Meese has said he did not know her well.
* A group of 65 House Republicans sent a letter to the president asking for a "full and immediate release" of all EPA documents sought by congressional investigators. Michel's call for Burford's ouster was the first by a member of the Republican leadership in Congress.
It followed similar calls by Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) and some Republican members of the House. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) yesterday said through a spokesman that he considers Burford to be "political baggage, but it's up to President Reagan to decide how much weight he's willing to carry."
* Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), chairman of another subcommittee investigating the EPA, said he will probe allegations of the existence of "several sophisticated and highly political hit lists currently in use at EPA." The lists identify agency employes and science advisers who were considered "liberal" in the eyes of certain Reagan administration officials.
* Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), another subcommittee chairman whose panel is investigating the EPA, called on Reagan to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the EPA because "I do not believe that the people of this country or the Congress have confidence that a full and impartial investigation of this matter can be carried out by the Justice Department."
While congressional leaders continued to criticize White House restrictions on their access to EPA documents, Reagan insisted at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club yesterday: "We are letting them [Congress] see everything. As a matter of fact, they started squealing before they were hurt." The president added that Congress has seen so many documents already that "their eyes are starting to glaze over.