In an extraordinary move, Legal Services Corp. President Donald P. Bogard dispatched officials to the organization's nine regional offices yesterday with instructions to impound documents relating to all "activities" during 1980, 1981 and 1982 lest any of that material be "inadvertently" destroyed.
The corporation, which provides civil legal services to those who cannot afford them, has been at the center of controversy over its spending to lobby Congress in 1981. The General Accounting Office charged in May, 1981, that its use of money for that purpose was illegal.
The matter has been the subject of hearings by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and is under further investigation by the GAO at that committee's request.
Yesterday's action also comes amid continuing administration efforts to eliminate the corporation. One regional director called it a "witch hunt," and others said that it would severely disrupt their activities.
According to Bogard, an appointee of President Reagan, the two people dispatched to each regional office "are just going through the files and seeing what's there. We're having our people looking to see if there are any files out there that should be preserved for the investigation. We wouldn't want anyone inadvertently destroying something that would be needed.
"This is purely a result of last Friday," Bogard said, referring to the Senate hearings. "Since they indicated they wanted a complete investigation, we're just making sure the files are secure for them."
Regional directors contacted yesterday confirmed that, in the late morning, two people had arrived unannounced at each office with a letter from Bogard authorizing them to impound and ship to Washington all files relating to "activities" during 1980, 1981 and 1982.
The result, said several regional directors, will be a crippling of the regional offices.
Salvador Tio, regional director based in New York City, called the action "totally disruptive." Tio said that all of his office's files for those three years were being boxed and carted away.
Several other regional directors indicated that those dispatched to their offices were being more selective in what they took.
Tio said that the seizure of files is part of a "witch hunt" and signals "a move to either eliminate all regional offices, or all regional directors."
Jo Ann Raphael, regional director in Chicago, said that "there is one person left behind here going through every file." She said that the removal of documents to headquarters in Washington "means the total destruction of my files."
One regional office reported that it had been told that a central filing system was being developed for all material, a move Bogard said was "a good possibility," although he said "it was not the impetus for this action."
Bogard denied that the impoundment of documents was an effort to collect evidence to be used to dismiss the regional directors. But he did say that the performance of the regional directors and the role of the regional offices are "under review."
The Reagan administration has sought to eliminate funding for the corporation each year, and Congress has persistently appropriated money. The organization's budget this year is $241 million.
Also yesterday, the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), requested that the Justice Department investigate whether former members of the corporation acted illegally in using the organization's funds to lobby on its own behalf.