A White House assistant asked the director of the nation's toxic waste cleanup program last July to "bend over backwards" to help Republican candidates by manipulating the announcements of federal cleanup grants, members of a House subcommittee charged yesterday.
Handwritten notes from the meeting describe Republican candidates as "terrific," "very important" or in a "tough fight." But Democrats and other less-favored candidates were to receive "no special treatment" because they were viewed as "very liberal" or because the grants would produce "no political hay."
White House officials repeatedly have denied that they influenced the issuing of any grants from the EPA's $1.6 billion "Superfund" program, which Congress created in 1980 to clean up the hazardous waste sites that are found to pose the most imminent hazards to human health.
White House assistant Jim Medas acknowledged in a statement yesterday that he had discussed a number of political races with the hazardous waste cleanup chief, Rita M. Lavelle, and her aide, Susan Baldyga, during their July 13, 1982, meeting. But he disputed Baldyga's handwritten notes of the session, which said Medas had asked them to "go through the races" and identify states in which timely EPA grants could help Republican candidates.
Medas at first said through a spokesman that he had not discussed any campaigns with the EPA officials, other than those in Lavelle's home state of California. But this was before the White House had received copies of Baldyga's notes, which were released by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
After an afternoon meeting with White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, Medas revised his account of the EPA meeting.
"Although we discussed a number of races . . . at no time did I say, suggest or imply that EPA policies ought to be shaped to meet political considerations," Medas said.
Medas said Baldyga's notes appeared to reflect many of Lavelle's political comments as well as his own. But subcommittee members said Baldyga had told the staff during closed-door interviews that Medas had asked for the meeting and had initiated the political discussion.
The subcommittee, which had planned to question Lavelle about the White House meeting, voted unanimously to cite her for contempt of Congress after she failed to obey a subpoena to appear and testify yesterday.
The panel excused Baldyga from testifying after she asked for more time to hire a lawyer.
Baldyga's notes of the meeting with Medas said the EPA should "bend over backwards" to help Republican Gov. Richard Snelling of Vermont and then-Gov. Edward J. King of Massachusetts, a conservative Democrat favored by the administration. The notes also said EPA should single out Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey and "help him all we can."
The agency last September announced 16 cleanup grants for New Jersey, the second-largest number made that month under the Superfund. The program has been at the center of allegations involving political favoritism and conflicts of interest since Lavelle and Baldyga were fired Feb. 7.
"A program designed to protect public health and safety should not be motivated by election politics," subcommittee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said.
"This is the first instance that has the direct involvement of the White House staff in the program to clean up chemical wastes," Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) said.
Yesterday's disclosures turned the spotlight from White House political operatives to its office of intergovernmental affairs, where Medas and others work at maintaining smooth relations with state and local officials.
Medas said he did not disclose the meeting previously because he considered it a "courtesy call" that was "not relevant" to the internal White House review of contacts with EPA. Baldyga's handwritten notes on other occasions referred to a controversial EPA settlement at a hazardous waste site in Seymour, Ind., which the agency announced a week before the 1982 elections. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) had been pressing EPA to reach agreement with some of the companies responsible for the waste, and critics have called the $7.7 million settlement a "sweetheart deal" that enabled the companies to avoid millions of dollars in liability.
Baldyga's notes contain the notation "Seymour--Sweetheart." On another page, she wrote: "Seymour announced--why change in schedule--Lugar couldn't hold off any longer . . . . Lugar thinks Rita is terrific."
The notes also say that the EPA was looking for a "political way to play Tar Creek," an abandoned lead- and zinc-mining site in Oklahoma that has been the state's top priority for federal cleanup funds.
In Baldyga's notes of her meeting with Medas, Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh was described as "real solid, only media market Republican." Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) was called "terrific, very important." Then-Gov. Bill Clements (R) of Texas was in a "tough fight," while Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson (R) also was "tough, very important."
Among Democratic governors, however, Virginia Gov. Charles Robb was called "quiet--highly ambitious--pretty." North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt was a "very strong Democrat, very lib." and potential challenger to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). And Baldyga wrote the agency should be "very wary" of Florida Gov. Robert Graham because he "takes shots all the time."
Certain GOP governors, senators and congressmen would be allowed to announce Superfund grants in their states, according to Baldyga's notes. On the other hand, South Dakota Gov. William Janklow (R) was to receive "no special treatment."
Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) could "forget" any special announcement because there was "no political hay" in it. And the EPA's Denver regional administrator, Steven Durham, advised that the "only states worth announcements are Colorado and Montana."
The contempt citation against Lavelle, 35, is expected to be approved by the full committee and the House, which last December voted a similar citation against then-EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford in a dispute over subpoenaed documents.
Lavelle's attorney, James J. Bierbower, has challenged the subpoena in court, saying it was served improperly and that the panel should first give Lavelle access to all EPA documents in its possession.
Baldyga said she would testify as soon as she found a lawyer. "I have nothing to hide," she said.
Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), a frequent critic of the EPA, said he was astounded to learn that investigators had found his 1982 political contribution list on Lavelle's desk. He said he has evidence that Lavelle--who appeared with Florio's Republican opponent to announce a Superfund grant five days before Election Day--rescinded this and other New Jersey grants once the campaign was over.
The subcommittee also released a list of 12 contacts, half of them over lunch or dinner, between Lavelle and officials of her former employer, Aerojet-General Corp., over a one-year span.
A company spokesman said these were social contacts and that Lavelle did not discuss the EPA's pending case against a California landfill where Aerojet-General and other companies had disposed of hazardous wastes.