The House of Representatives voted 413 to 0 yesterday to hold former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita M. Lavelle in contempt of Congress for refusing to honor a subcommittee subpoena.
The contempt resolution, supported by 255 Democrats and 158 Republicans, was approved hours before the swearing in of new EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus in what President Reagan called "a new beginning" for the troubled agency.
Reagan pledged his "total support" to Ruckelshaus, confirmed by the Senate Tuesday in a 97-to-0 vote as decisive in its endorsement as yesterday's House vote was in its condemnation.
Lavelle, head of the EPA's hazardous waste division until she was fired by Reagan in February, is the second of Reagan's EPA appointees cited for contempt during an investigation of the $1.6 billion "Superfund" hazardous waste cleanup law.
In December, former EPA administrator Anne M. Burford was held in contempt on a 259-to-105 vote for failing to turn over agency documents relating to the Superfund. The documents have since been released, but the citation of Burford has not been resolved.
Burford was obeying a presidential order to withhold the documents. Lavelle claimed no such order, and the overwhelming vote against her came after an hour-long debate in which not one member rose to Lavelle's defense.
The Justice Department is also considering whether to impanel a grand jury to investigate allegations that Lavelle and former EPA general counsel Robert M. Perry perjured themselves in testimony.
The resolution approved yesterday will be forwarded to the Justice Department for presentation to a federal grand jury. Justice declined to refer the Burford contempt citation to a grand jury, saying the matter was in dispute because of Reagan's claim of executive privilege over the documents.
A spokesman in the U.S. attorney's office here said yesterday that the office would decide what to do with the Lavelle citation when it has the document in hand.
House Energy and Commerce Committee members contended yesterday that Lavelle's testimony is essential to their inquiry into allegations of impropriety at the EPA.
But the lopsided vote appeared to stem more from arguments that Lavelle's action posed a grave threat to congressional authority.
Democratic representatives rose one after another to accuse Lavelle of "violating a public trust" and committing an act of "arrogance and defiance" that compromised the ability of Congress to oversee laws it enacts.
Rep. Bob Whittaker (R-Kan.), the only Republican to enter the debate, urged the House to approve the contempt citation as a "strong signal" that Congress will not tolerate such behavior. "This is not a referendum on EPA policy," he said. "It is the issue of our constitutional prerogatives to have oversight authority."
The citation stemmed from Lavelle's refusal to appear before an Energy and Commerce subcommittee March 21, in defiance of a subpoena given her Feb. 23.
"She alone . . . has refused to cooperate with the subcommittee," said Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who called Lavelle's failure to appear an "act of defiance to the legitimate authority of Congress. No one person can be above the law."
Lavelle told the Associated Press yesterday that she hopes for "a quick resolution so I can get on with my life," and said she does not expect to be indicted for contempt.
Her attorney, James J. Bierbower, said again that she is willing to testify but has been unable to review documents held by the subcommittee.
Conviction on a contempt charge, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) requested a perjury prosecution of Lavelle in March, citing evidence that Lavelle learned of a potential conflict of interest involving her former employer, Aerojet General Corp., in late May, 1982.
Lavelle told Dingell's oversight subcommittee that she did not know about Aerojet's involvement in a California hazardous waste dump until June 17 that year.
The same month, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a subcommittee member, asked Justice to investigate testimony by former general counsel Perry, who testified that he knew nothing about a so-called "green book" allegedly kept to rate his subordinates. Markey cited evidence that the book was kept by Perry's staff, with Perry's knowledge.