The House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday voted unanimously to cite former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita M. Lavelle for contempt of Congress, saying she had twice defied a subpoena to testify on management of the agency's hazardous waste cleanup fund.
The contempt resolution, which passed by voice vote without dissent, will go now to the full House.
The House voted last December to hold former EPA administrator Anne M. Burford in contempt for refusing to turn over documents subpoenaed as part of a parallel investigation of the $1.6 billion Superfund. The current legal status of that action is unclear.
In a letter delivered to the Energy and Commerce Committee late Monday afternoon, Lavelle's lawyer urged the panel not to seek a contempt citation. Attorney James J. Bierbower said his client "remains ready" to testify before its oversight subcommittee.
But Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said he had seen "no sincere effort" on Bierbower's part to produce Lavelle, who has twice failed to appear before the subcommittee although she has testified voluntarily before a Senate panel and another House committee.
Lavelle, who headed the EPA's toxic wastes division until fired by President Reagan Feb. 7, was the senior official directly responsible for Superfund management.
The oversight subcommittee, also headed by Dingell, voted Feb. 10 to subpoena her as part of its investigation into allegations that the Superfund had been mismanaged and politically manipulated.
Subcommittee members also want to question Lavelle about allegations of conflict of interest against her, particularly whether she continued to participate in agency meetings about the Stringfellow Acid Pits in California after learning that her former employer, Aerojet General Corp., had disposed of hazardous materials there.
Dingell said the subcommittee "was now at the point in its investigation where it needs to hear from Rita Lavelle. No one had a better vantage point from which to observe defects in the law than Rita Lavelle."
Rep. James T. Broyhill (R-N.C.), the committee's senior Republican, also supported the contempt resolution, noting that Lavelle "is the only person who failed to cooperate or participate" in the panel's inquiry.
Dingell urged Bierbower to "move promptly" to schedule Lavelle's testimony "because I anticipate that the action of the committee here today will be reported to the House for its consideration in the very near future." He said he had assurances that the matter "will be vigorously prosecuted."
Committee aides said the contempt report could be submitted to the House within two weeks. Contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a year in jail.
Bierbower said yesterday that he did not believe two subpoenas from the House subcommittee were served properly. He received one of them Feb. 16, for a hearing Feb. 17 at which Lavelle did not appear.
Lavelle received the second subpoena, for a March 21 subcommittee hearing, on Feb. 23 as she awaited the start of a Senate hearing at which she testified. She did not appear at the March 21 hearing.
Committee aides said yesterday that the panel would prefer Lavelle's testimony to a contempt citation, and Bierbower said he was "hopeful" an appearance could still be scheduled when her job search permitted.
"She's been trying to get a job," he said. "It's not easy when you're fired by the president of the United States."