Anne M. Burford has asked the White House to pay $211,000 of her legal fees, contending that Attorney General Edwin Meese III promised her that the administration would pick up the tab if she resigned in March 1983 as Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
"The agreement with [Meese] was oral and part of my resignation. You'd think he'd honor his word, wouldn't you?" Burford said in an interview published yesterday in Legal Times, a trade publication.
Meese, who in 1983 was counselor to President Reagan, refused through a spokesman to comment on Burford's remarks. She resigned on March 9, 1983, amid a national furor about alleged improprieties at the EPA. Burford incurred large legal fees during investigations of her role in the controversies.
Burford said in the interview that she thinks that her claim places Meese in a difficult position because he is seeking government reimbursement for legal fees of his own -- $720,000 incurred during a special counsel's investigation of his alleged financial improprieties.
It was unclear which agency could be considered liable for Burford's legal fees and whether Meese could influence action on her request.
"It's in his own best interest to do nothing," Burford said, "and I can't afford to have nothing done."
Burford's request was filed in October 1983 with White House counsel Fred F. Fielding but was not made public. According to sources, the request does not mention a promise by Meese. Fielding has yet to rule on the matter.
In the interview, Burford said that because the White House has not acted on her request, she plans to file a lawsuit "very soon" to try to force the administration to pay the legal fees she incurred after her resignation.
One aspect of the suit, she said, would be a malpractice charge against Justice Department lawyers who represented her when she was cited for contempt of Congress.
Burford was cited in 1982 when she refused, under orders from Reagan and, she said, against her will, to turn over subpoenaed documents on the EPA's Superfund program. She has accused Justice of trying to create a constitutional confrontation with Congress over the issue of executive privilege and, in the process, neglecting her case. "It will be a big, bloody lawsuit," Burford said in the interview.
Burford has asserted for more than two years that she should not be liable for legal expenses related to her carrying out the president's orders as EPA administrator.
The Justice Department represented Burford until shortly before her resignation, when Justice officials said they had a conflict of interest. The department was conducting a criminal investigation into alleged wrongdoing at the EPA.
Burford retained the law firm of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy to represent her in the contempt case, which was dropped after Reagan relented and allowed the release of the documents. The law firm represented her at the Justice Department inquiry; congressional investigations; a grand jury probe of her former subordinate, Rita M. Lavelle, and her testimony at the trial of Lavelle, who was convicted of perjury.
Last year, Burford was again the center of controversy when Reagan nominated her to head an environmental commission, provoking protests that led her to ask that her name be withdrawn. A source close to Burford said that if she sues the government for legal fees, she is likely to mention that she has endured "a very difficult time, a very difficult time" as a result of serving as Reagan's EPA administrator.