Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Anne M. Burford says the Justice Department, in exchange for paying $198,000 of her lawyers' bills, pressured her into giving up the right to sue the former officials who represented her in a 1983 battle with Congress.
Burford said she reluctantly signed a sweeping waiver last Thursday that precludes her from suing current and former administration officials who handled the controversy over EPA documents that led to her resignation. She said Justice Department officials refused to pay her three-year-old legal bills unless she bowed to their demands.
"It's blackmail," Burford said in an interview. "They were blackmailing me to protect people . . . . I think what the Justice Department did in requiring me to sign that was reprehensible."
Burford said Attorney General Edwin Meese III "is using the Justice Department and the United States government to protect these people individually . . . . I frankly thought he was smart enough not to get involved in this . . . . "
Department spokesman Terry H. Eastland said it is "just simply not the case" that Meese is protecting the officials involved. He said Meese had approved a recommendation from Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds that the government not pay Burford's legal fees unless she forfeited the right to sue.
"The rationale is simply this: we wanted to put the matter behind us," Eastland said. "We are not legally obligated to pay her fees; it's simply a matter of discretion. It did not make sense to leave open the possibility that there would be continuing actions brought, that someone else would have to be defended and we'd have to pay their legal fees . . . . It is not unreasonable for us to ask that the matter be ended."
Eastland acknowledged that the department did not require such waivers from the other principal figures in the controversy -- including former assistant attorney general Theodore B. Olson, former deputy attorney general Carol E. Dinkins and White House deputy counsel Richard A. Hauser -- when it agreed to pay their legal fees.
Burford said she had offered to renounce any suits against the government, but had insisted on the right to sue Olson, Dinkins and Hauser for alleged improprieties that went beyond their official duties.
"The one thing I wanted to reserve was the right to sue those people individually for malpractice . . . . They lied to the president of the United States, lied to me, lied to the courts and Congress," Burford said. If no independent counsel is named, she said, "I'm the only person in the world that has standing to sue them."
The department has paid more than $60,000 in legal fees for Olson, Dinkins, Hauser and nine other officials who came under investigation by the House Judiciary Committee. The panel concluded that several of these officials lied or acted improperly in withholding EPA documents from Congress on a claim of executive privilege in 1982 and 1983. The panel has urged Meese to seek an independent counsel in the case.
Olson, Dinkins and Hauser have insisted that the committee's allegations are unfounded. Olson and Hauser declined comment on Burford's charges; Dinkins could not be reached.
Eastland also said that Meese signed no waiver when he received $472,190 in legal fees following a 1984 independent counsel's probe. But Eastland noted that Meese won court approval for those fees under the independent-counsel law.
Burford had requested $218,176 for legal work by attorney Douglas P. Bennett and his former law firm, Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy. The department agreed last month to pay $198,101 and to split the cost with the EPA.
Eastland said the government limited its payments to $75 an hour and to Burford's representation before Congress. He said payment was disallowed for legal fees involving the department's 1983 criminal investigation, in which he said Burford was "a possible target."
But Burford said that the House Judiciary Committee probe also involves possible criminal charges, and that this did not stop the department from paying lawyers for Olson, Dinkins and Hauser. She charged that Meese "has totally prejudiced himself" in the case and can no longer be objective about seeking an independent counsel.
Burford said she signed the waiver because Bennett's former law firm had made clear it would sue her for the money. She said her new attorney and her husband, Interior Department official Robert F. Burford, convinced her that she had no choice.