A federal grand jury yesterday indicted former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita M. Lavelle for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before a House subcommittee investigating her management of EPA's hazardous waste cleanup fund.
U.S. Attorney Stanley S. Harris announced the indictment eight days after the House voted, 413 to 0, to cite Lavelle for contempt for refusing to comply with a subcommittee subpoena.
Lavelle, 36, who was an assistant administrator, was the first EPA official to be indicted since the agency became the focus of Justice Department and congressional investigations. She faces up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000 under the misdemeanor charge if convicted.
"The administration and others are receiving a message that cooperation with the Congress is something that has got to take place," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which initiated the case. "We hope that Ms. Lavelle will appear and testify before the committee yet. Her behavior has been most extraordinary. She appears to be ill-advised."
Law enforcement sources said that Lavelle's attorney, James J. Bierbower, rejected an offer to have his client plead guilty to a "criminal information," a charge short of an indictment that would have let Lavelle avoid a trial and could have resulted in a lighter sentence.
The indictment is based on Lavelle's refusal to appear before Dingell's subcommittee on oversight and investigations March 21 after being served a subpoena in February. The panel wants to ask Lavelle about allegations of mismanagement, conflict of interest and political favoritism at EPA, including a memo she wrote to the White House on a strategy to turn announcements of toxic waste cleanup grants to President Reagan's political advantage. Lavelle ran the $1.6 billion toxic waste "Superfund" until Reagan fired her Feb. 7.
Bierbower said he repeatedly has offered to have Lavelle testify, but has been unable to reach an agreement with Dingell's subcommittee. "I've always taken the position that she will testify," Bierbower said. "If the House wants her to appear, we'll have her appear."
Bierbower has insisted that Lavelle be allowed to review EPA documents in the committee's possession and that the panel pay her expenses. "The woman has no job and no money and needs her transportation expenses paid," he said.
But House counsel Stanley M. Brand said that Bierbower has declined several invitations to discuss a possible compromise, adding: "The witness doesn't make the conditions under which she will show up."
Even if Lavelle agrees to testify, Brand said, that should not stop the U.S. attorney from taking the case to trial, although a judge would consider her cooperation at the time of sentencing.
A federal grand jury also is investigating whether Lavelle committed perjury in congressional testimony about the date she learned of a potential conflict of interest involving her former employer, Aerojet-General Corp. The grand jury also is examining perjury allegations involving former EPA general counsel Robert M. Perry and former acting administrator John W. Hernandez Jr.
The House still is examining why Harris declined to prosecute an earlier contempt citation against former EPA administrator Anne M. Burford, who cited executive privilege in refusing to turn over agency documents to Congress last fall. Unlike Burford, whose contempt citation still has not been resolved, Lavelle has made no such claim of executive privilege.