Three House committee chairmen yesterday urged Attorney General Edwin Meese III to seek a Watergate-style independent counsel to examine "highly persuasive" evidence that several administration officials lied or acted improperly three years ago in withholding documents about wrongdoing at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Last month the Judiciary Committee released a 1,300-page report detailing allegations that senior Department of Justice and EPA officials misled President Reagan, Congress and a federal court in withholding subpoenaed EPA documents from House investigators in 1982 and 1983.
The report also concluded that department officials had examined campaign contribution records of two congressmen involved in the dispute in an effort to link them to hazardous-waste dumpers.
Before the EPA documents were released in 1983, former administrator Anne M. Burford was cited for criminal contempt of Congress and more than 20 agency officials resigned amid allegations of conflicts of interest and political manipulation of funds to clean up hazardous waste dumps.
Current and former administration officials criticized in the report have denied any wrongdoing.
On Dec. 12 House Judiciary Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) asked Meese to seek appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the allegations. Meese, who has not commented on the matter, was not attorney general at the time the alleged improprieties occurred.
"In the interest of justice and the appearance of impartiality, we urge you to take action," said the letter from Chairmen Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) of the Government Operations Committee, John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee and James J. Howard (D-N.J.) of the Public Works and Transportation Committee.
The letter called the Judiciary Committee report "highly persuasive with respect to possible illegal conduct of former high-level officials of the Justice Department and other administration officials."
"It must be noted that these findings and conclusions are based on information which has been developed in a meticulously fair and thorough manner largely through [Justice Department] interviews and documents," it said.
Under the Ethics in Government Act, if more than half the majority or nonmajority members of a congressional committee request an independent counsel, the attorney general must consider asking a special federal court panel to appoint one.
The statute specifies that if the attorney general decides that the allegations do not warrant a preliminary investigation, he must inform the Judiciary Committee of his decision within 30 days of the members' request. Otherwise, he must notify the committee no later than 15 days after completion of a 90-day preliminary inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The initial 30-day period expires today, and Meese has not said whether he has ordered a preliminary inquiry. The Justice Department had no comment yesterday.
Administration sources said that some department officials regard the House probe as blatantly political and have laid the groundwork for a rejection of the request for an independent counsel.
These officials have charged that the Judiciary Committee probe was unfair because Justice Department attorneys were not allowed to sit in on the interviews by House investigators. They also have charged that the department cannot determine the accuracy of the allegations because transcripts were not made of the interviews, which are summarized in the report.
If Meese decides against requesting an outside counsel, he is required by law to give the committee the reasons for his decision.