The House Judiciary Committee called for independent counsel yesterday to investigate charges that several administration officials lied or acted improperly three years ago in withholding documents about wrongdoing at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The panel released a 1,300-page report that provides fresh evidence for allegations that senior administration officials misled President Reagan, Congress and a federal court in withholding subpoenaed EPA documents from House investigators in 1982 and 1983.
Handwritten notes, for example, show that then-Solicitor General Rex E. Lee warned that there was a 90 percent chance that the Justice Department would lose its suit against the House in the dispute over access to the documents. Lee said there was a "clear case" against the department, but officials filed the suit anyway and lost.
The report confirms that the Justice Department did not consult then-EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford before invoking executive privilege on her behalf. Burford was cited for contempt of Congress at the height of the controversy and resigned.
The report also reveals that a senior Justice Department official pored over campaign contribution records and lists of toxic waste dumpers in an effort to show that key congressmen were seeking the EPA documents to assist local polluters who had supported their campaigns. No such link was found.
Theodore B. Olson, a former assistant attorney general who was criticized in the report, vigorously disputed its conclusions yesterday, saying it presented "no basis" for the appointment of an independent counsel. White House Deputy Counsel Richard A. Hauser, who was also criticized, took issue with the accuracy of the committee findings as well. Other officials mentioned in the report could not be reached for comment yesterday. All have previously denied any wrongdoing.
The Judiciary Committee yesterday voted 22 to 13, with two Republicans joining 20 Democrats, to release its report after rejecting a GOP effort to delete the conclusions of the 2 1/2-year investigation.
"The Congress cannot do its job . . . if the Department of Justice is permitted to conduct itself in the manner that this report reflects," committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) said. The report was sent to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who by law must decide whether the allegations warrant requesting an independent counsel.
"We know what our obligations are under the statute and we intend to fulfill them," Justice Department spokesman Terry H. Eastland said. But he said that "just because some members of Congress call for appointment of such a counsel does not obligate us to seek one."
"This so-called investigation by the majority on the House Judiciary Committee does not seem to have been conducted with an appropriate regard for fairness or due process," Eastland said.
The report charges that several current and former administration officials withheld the EPA documents from Congress, although they knew the material contained evidence of possible wrongdoing and politically embarrassing discussions. Congress was investigating political favoritism and mismanagement in EPA's "Superfund" toxic waste cleanup program.
The report said these officials invoked executive privilege to shield the documents without reviewing many of them. It said that White House Deputy Counsel Hauser "falsely certified" that he had reviewed all the disputed documents in December 1982, when he had not.
Hauser responded yesterday that the "allegation is unfounded." He said he did not certify that he personally had read all the documents, but that the documents, some of which he reviewed and some of which were described to him by others, met the president's criteria for a claim of executive privilege.
The report also said that former assistant attorney general Olson gave "false and misleading testimony" at a House hearing in March 1983 and later had to correct his account.
Olson stated "categorically" yesterday that his testimony was not false and misleading and that he "routinely" supplied corrections after the hearing because of additional information he had received.
Among the findings:
*In October 1982, an attorney in Justice's Office of Legal Counsel was sent to the Federal Election Commission, where she obtained campaign contributor lists for Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Mike Synar (D-Okla.), who were leading the House probe of EPA. The office's No. 2 official, Larry L. Simms, then examined hazardous waste dumpers at two sites in Dingell's and Synar's districts and matched them against the contributor lists.
Simms told the panel that he and colleagues had talked about discovering "whether any of the polluters might be campaign contributors" to Dingell and Synar.
*Several senior Justice officials, including former lands division chief Carol E. Dinkins, "became aware of a number of political references in notes that had been withheld. These political references suggested that the November 1982 elections had played a role in the withholding of Superfund grant money at the Stringfellow [Acid Pits] site in California."
*Although EPA's Burford argued that the documents should be given to Congress, Justice's Olson told the White House that she agreed with the decision to withhold the material.
Olson said yesterday that top EPA officials led him to believe that Burford concurred and that he learned she might not have agreed only after he informed the White House.
[Burford told United Press International that the House study is "the best report I've ever read."]
*Justice officials believed that two senior EPA officials had engaged in possible misconduct, but failed to act. Simms told the panel that he and Olson believed that then-EPA general counsel Robert M. Perry had committed perjury in testifying before Congress. Another Justice official said that Perry was not "coming clean with us."
The officials also became aware that former EPA official Rita M. Lavelle was improperly participating in a toxic-waste case affecting a former employer.
Lavelle was later convicted of lying about the matter.