House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) said yesterday that Attorney General Edwin Meese III may be flouting the law and ignoring "obvious conflicts of interest" by not conducting an investigation requested by the committee last December.
Rodino had asked Meese to seek an independent counsel after the Judiciary Committee issued a report that accused present and former Reagan administration officials of improper conduct in withholding from Congress documents detailing wrongdoing at the Environmental Protection Agency in 1982 and 1983.
In a statement yesterday, Rodino said, "I had hoped that we would have heard before this that the attorney general had applied to the court for an independent counsel. However, the law provides that the department can conduct a preliminary inquiry for 90 days, so the committee will expect to hear finally from the attorney general by next month."
But Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten said the department can take as much time as it wants to review the committee's allegations, and that the 90-day deadline doesn't take effect until the department decides to open a preliminary investigation.
Korten said the department was reviewing the committee's "extremely long, detailed report. It's hard in some cases to separate the rhetoric from the substance."
Rodino was engaging in "gamesmanship," Korten said.
On Dec. 5, the Judiciary Committee approved a 1,284-page report on the administration's 1982 decision to withhold documents dealing with the EPA's handling of the "Superfund" program for toxic waste cleanup.
The report said that senior administration officials testified falsely, gave misleading documents to Congress, misled the federal courts and withheld important facts from President Reagan.
Following a unanimous voice vote by the committee, Rodino urged Meese in a letter to request an independent counsel so that the Justice Department would not be investigating itself.
In a Jan. 13 letter, Meese replied that "because of the extensive scope and detail" of the report, "no final decision has been reached as to whether an independent counsel need be sought . . . . "
But Rodino, in a memo to committee members last week, said recent correspondence "suggests that the department may be violating the statute, and disregarding the obvious conflicts of interest with which it is faced."
Rodino, who said the 90 days will end March 12, said there were "clear personal and political conflicts of interest facing Mr. Meese and his subordinates with respect to the officials named in the report."