Former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita M. Lavelle has told a House subcommittee that she will not comply with a subpoena to testify before the panel Monday morning, raising the possibility that the subcommittee may vote to hold her in contempt of Congress.
Lavelle's attorney, James J. Bierbower, said in a letter late Friday to John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, that Lavelle will not obey the subpoena because she has not been able to review EPA documents in the subcommittee's files. Bierbower said he has filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the subpoena.
"If she doesn't show, she's in contempt and they can vote to hold her in contempt," House Counsel Stanley M. Brand said. "It's pretty straightforward. It'll take about five minutes."
The subcommittee had planned, among others things, to question Lavelle about her relationship with White House counselor Edwin Meese III and other administration officials. A series of letters between Meese and Lavelle, obtained by The Washington Post, show that the two were in frequent contact before and after Lavelle's nomination as director of the EPA's hazardous waste cleanup program.
In a letter to Meese last April, for example, Lavelle thanked him for presiding at her swearing-in ceremony and wrote, "I will always do my best to remain a tribute to 'Meese' training."
Meese has said that he knows Lavelle only slightly from days together in California, but Lavelle has described them as having a somewhat closer relationship.
Bierbower said in his letter to Dingell that Lavelle, who has returned to California, left the EPA with only "her purse and her handkerchief. It seems only fair to permit her to review the files now in your committee's possession prior to her testimony."
"She hasn't been given the thousands upon thousands of documents to review," Bierbower said in an interview yesterday. "The committee has those documents, and she has nothing."
Bierbower acknowledged, however, that he has not asked the subcommittee for accesss to the documents, saying this would be fruitless. Bierbower also said the subcommittee had served the subpoena improperly Feb. 23, while Lavelle was waiting to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
But Brand said that the subpoena is valid and that Lavelle has no legal right to the subcommittee's documents. "It sounds like some kind of stunt pulled by a desperate defense lawyer," he said.
Brand said the FBI recently asked him for copies of Lavelle's testimony on consecutive days last month before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a House Public Works subcommittee. The Justice Department, at Dingell's request, is investigating allegations that Lavelle committed perjury in her testimony and violated conflict-of-interest laws.
Lavelle testified that she did not know that her former employer, Aerojet-General Corp., had disposed of wastes at Stringfellow Acid Pits in California until last June 17, the day before she formally recused herself from any EPA decisions involving Stringfellow.
But several EPA employes have said Lavelle was told of Aerojet's involvement during an EPA meeting several weeks earlier.
"As a result of having been up before Congress twice, the chairman wants to put her in jail for perjury, and now he wants her up there a third time," Bierbower said. "Before she testifies, she has a right to look at those documents, and the only way we'll look at them is by getting a court order."
One of the Meese letters obtained yesterday dates from November, 1981, when Lavelle was director of communications at Aerojet-General.
In a "Dear Rita" note, on White House stationery, Meese said he was sorry he could not accept her invitation to appear before a trade association convention. In a handwritten postscript, Meese added, "I have asked Air Force Secretary Verne Orr to make every effort to participate in your convention. Ed."
In another letter last April, Lavelle asked Meese assistant James Jenkins if Meese could attend her swearing-in ceremony, saying, "With all the recent 'negative' press on EPA, it would certainly be a boon to morale to have Mr. Meese present for this ceremony."
In her thank-you note to Meese, Lavelle said his appearance "also was the source of an immense sense of pride for the EPA employes--who are constantly maligned in The Post and The New York Times."
Lavelle was fired by President Reagan Feb. 7 after she refused then-EPA administrator Anne M. Burford's request that she resign. Lavelle's firing touched off a series of investigations that culminated in Burford's resignation 11 days ago.