Attorney General Edwin Meese III will decide by the end of April whether to seek an independent counsel to examine allegations that administration officials withheld Environmental Protection Agency documents from Congress three years ago.
Meese told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday that the Justice Department has begun a preliminary investigation of a 1,284-page report issued by the panel in December. Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) has repeatedly criticized Meese for not complying with the committee's recommended appointment of an independent counsel.
FBI agents recently began interviewing witnesses, and Meese promised a decision "in the very near future." Rodino said Meese told him privately that he has set April 30 as a deadline.
"Given the detailed specificity of our report . . . I really fail to understand why three months of review in the Criminal Division and now a preliminary investigation are even necessary," Rodino said. He told Meese "it is your responsibility" to seek an independent probe because the allegations involve "your longtime associates."
Meese said he has "scrupulously complied" with the law requiring him to decide whether the allegations are serious enough to warrant an independent counsel and sees no conflict of interest in his making the decision.
The report said that present and former administration officials might have misled Congress, the president and the courts in a 1982-83 confrontation over EPA documents. The report said the officials invoked executive privilege to withhold toxic waste cleanup records without reviewing whether the documents contained evidence of misconduct.
The principal officials involved -- White House deputy counsel Richard A. Hauser, former assistant attorney general Theodore B. Olson and former deputy attorney general Carol E. Dinkins -- have denied wrongdoing.
Meese also gave a qualified endorsement to a compromise gun-control bill that the committee unanimously adopted Tuesday. While saying he has not reviewed the specifics, Meese told Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.) he had no objections to the provisions, including one to require a police background check of handgun buyers.
"It's the kind of bill that I certainly would feel comfortable with," Meese said. The bill, which would ease record-keeping rules while stiffening penalties for crimes committed with a gun, is strongly supported by police groups but opposed by the National Rifle Association. It is set for House action next week.
Meese's comments are important because the administration has backed a competing Senate-passed bill, S.49, that the NRA is trying to force to the House floor by means of a discharge petition. That bill would weaken the 1968 Gun Control Act.
"I can live with S.49, and the administration does support it," Meese said. "I feel it would be a better bill if it was amended to take care of two or three features." Proponents have been pursuing a no-amendment strategy.
On another subject, Meese said that parts of his department are already testing employes for drug use, as the President's Commission on Organized Crime has suggested for all government employes and contractors. Officials said that the Bureau of Prisons is testing all prospective employes and that the Drug Enforcement Administration plans to begin similar pre-employent tests this spring as well as random tests for present employes.