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Decades before Steve Bannon was charged with contempt of Congress, Rita Lavelle was tried

Former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon was charged Nov. 12 on two counts of contempt of Congress. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

When former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon was charged Friday on two counts of contempt of Congress after refusing to comply with a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, his indictment was the first of its kind in decades.

It’s rare for the Justice Department to bring contempt charges against government officials refusing to comply with subpoenas, but it can happen, like in the cases of Bannon or Watergate mastermind G. Gordon Liddy in 1974. But in between the presidential advisers for Richard M. Nixon and Donald Trump, another GOP official was the last to face such charges: Rita M. Lavelle, a federal environmental official under Ronald Reagan.

Lavelle, who refused to submit to questions regarding why she was removed as the head of a toxic waste disposal program at the Environmental Protection Agency, was acquitted of the contempt of Congress charge. She was sentenced in 1984 to six months in prison after she was convicted of lying to Congress, becoming the first Reagan appointee to be found guilty of a crime.

Lavelle, now 74, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Saturday.

The history surrounding those tried for contempt of Congress comes as Bannon faces charges that carry a maximum sentence of one year in prison. The indictment of Bannon may serve as a warning to others seeking to avoid or defy the Jan. 6 committee. He is expected to turn himself in next week ahead of his first court appearance in the case.

“We have NOT had a contempt of Congress case since Rita Lavelle in 1983!” tweeted Maya Wiley, a legal analyst for MSNBC and NBC News. “This is a big milestone.”

Steve Bannon indicted after refusal to comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena

Lavelle, a Californian who was one of eight children in a tightknit Irish American family, was a rising star in the state’s GOP politics. She held numerous positions with Reagan’s administration when he was governor of California before joining the chemical industry. Her contributions in the aerospace industry resulted in Aerospace Magazine naming her one of the most outstanding women in the industry in 1981.

In 1982, Reagan, in his second year in the White House, appointed Lavelle to be the EPA’s assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response. At the time, the EPA was run by Anne Gorsuch Burford, the mother of future Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. Lavelle’s appointment drew both misogynistic commentary — she was repeatedly described by reporters in coverage as “blond” and “plump” — and blowback from critics who pointed to a potential conflict of interest due to her employment in the chemical industry.

As Lois Romano wrote in The Post in 1983, it wouldn’t take long for Lavelle to turn into what was, at the time, “the biggest political spectacle of this administration.” Lavelle was tasked with directing the agency’s $1.6 billion Superfund program for solid waste and emergency response.

Her problems began when Burford initially refused to turn over to Congress subpoenaed documents related to the mishandling of the EPA’s Superfund, which was called “Sewergate” by some newspapers at the time; friends told reporters that she was acting under orders from Reagan. The EPA eventually handed over the documents several months later after the White House dropped its legal challenge. Burford later resigned.

“When congressional criticism about the EPA began to touch the presidency, Mr. Reagan solved his problem by jettisoning me and my people, people whose only ‘crime’ was loyal service, following orders,” she wrote in her 1986 memoir. Burford died in 2004 at 62.

Lavelle, the head of Superfund, was at the heart of Sewergate. She was accused of not only ignoring environmentalists but also eating restaurant dinners that were paid for by industry executives. At the time, she claimed that she was never shown the EPA ethics code because no one had ever instructed her to read it.

“I was never shown an ethics code, and it’s typical of what happens to a lot of people when they come to Washington,” she told The Post in 1983. “You’re not trained; you’re not told how to conduct yourself.”

Lavelle was fired from the EPA just one year into her tenure, and she was charged with criminal contempt of Congress after she failed to heed a House subpoena. A House subcommittee had sought Lavelle’s testimony following reports that she engaged in possible “political manipulation” of the $1.6 billion fund to help Republican candidates in the 1982 congressional elections.

At the trial, Lavelle testified that she failed to submit to questions because she was “emotionally and physically drained,” saying she suffered from a lump in her throat that made it sore, and feared she could have cancer, according to the New York Times.

“I was extremely depressed during that time,” she testified. “I basically was falling apart.”

While her defense attorney said her symptoms amounted to “an incapacitating illness,” a federal prosecutor derided Lavelle’s excuses as “blue smoke and mirrors.”

She was found not guilty of contempt of Congress in July 1983. But at the end of the Justice Department’s five-month investigation following the verdict, she was found guilty of lying to Congress. In January 1984, she was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $10,000.

“You have indeed violated the public trust,” Judge Norma Holloway Johnson told Lavelle at her sentencing. “The perjury offense strikes at the very core of the trust that had been conferred to you.”

Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), who was the chairman of one of the subcommittees investigating the EPA at the time, told the Los Angeles Times in 1984 that Lavelle’s conviction for lying to Congress was “a sacrifice to still the rumblings on the mountain.”

“Ms. Lavelle was not the only liar who appeared before our committee,” Levitas said. “The problem was much broader than Rita Lavelle.”

When she showed up to serve her sentence in 1985, she told reporters: “It is totally ludicrous that I have to go through with this. But I’ve made a decision to end two years of hell and go through with it.” Lavelle was released after serving more than four months, according to the Associated Press.

Though she later got involved again with GOP politics in California, it wouldn’t be the last time Lavelle faced prison time. In 2004, she was convicted of wire fraud and two counts of lying to the FBI in connection with an investigation into another California company linked to a Superfund dispute. She was sentenced to 15 months in prison and was released in 2007.

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