WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee called Thursday for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate alleged criminal wrongdoing by a White House official and three former Justice Department officials, whom they accused of misleading Congress and a federal court about the mismanagement scandal three years ago at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The panel voted 22 to 13, largely along party lines, to adopt a 1,200-page report by congressional investigators that charged former Justice Department officials had served the President and the executive branch improperly when it withheld documents during the EPA investigation and "delayed congressional efforts to address the serious problems associated with the cleanup of hazardous waste sites throughout the United States."
After the committee vote, committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) said: "I think that no Justice Department which upholds the law ought to be immune" from the law.
Those criticized in the report include Richard A. Hauser, deputy counsel to President Reagan, and former Justice Department officials Carol E. Dinkins, J. Paul McGrath and Theodore B. Olson, who helped represent then-EPA Administrator Anne McGill Burford in late 1982 and early 1983 in a dispute with two House subcommittees about access to sensitive Superfund files.
Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland criticized Judiciary Committee investigators, saying that they pursued information in a manner that raised questions of credibility.
"Their procedures come out of the 16th Century," he said. "They do not comport with modern notions of due process. For example, the Department of Justice was not allowed to have representatives present during the interviews of Ted Olson and Carol Dinkins. They could only have private counsel present--and that was at taxpayer expense."
Eastland, responding to the committee's call for a special prosecutor, added: "Just because a member or members of Congress call for the appointment of an independent counsel does not mean we are obligated to seek it out. We understand our obligations under the Ethics in Government Act and will make sure we carry them out."
The committee took its final action after Republicans on the panel failed in efforts to eliminate the report's conclusions and to label its findings as that of staff, rather than the committee. The motion to adopt the report was supported by all 20 Democrats on the committee and two Republicans, Reps. Hank Brown of Colorado and Pat Swindall of Georgia.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, whose subcommittee on oversight and investigations had sought the disputed documents, said the Judiciary Committee report "confirms my worst suspicions."
He added: "The Justice Department lied to the Congress and misled the President. It's clear from the report that senior officials at Justice deliberately kept the Congress and the American people from learning about this Administration's failure to enforce laws designed to protect the public health and the environment."
Burford, who was supported by President Reagan during the controversy, claimed that the materials sought by the congressional subcommittees could not be released because they contained prosecution strategies to be used against corporate polluters. Burford, whom the House ultimately cited for contempt of Congress but was never prosecuted, resigned under pressure in March, 1983, after Congress was given access to some EPA files in a compromise settlement.
Burford told United Press International this week that she has reviewed the Judiciary Committee report and considers it "professional, very, very thorough and, to the extent of my knowledge, accurate."
"It's the best congressional report I've ever read about anything, and I've read a bundle of them," she said.
The report charges that the four Administration officials told Congress and the U.S. District Court in Washington that they had read the disputed files personally and that nothing in them reflected criminal wrongdoing by agency officials when, in fact, the officials had not read all the materials.
The issue of criminality was key because Reagan had asserted that he would not invoke executive privilege if criminal wrongdoing were involved.
The report charged that many of the EPA records in dispute did in fact contain evidence that political manipulation of Superfund--the program created by Congress to clean up hazardous waste sites--was discussed.
The report accused Olson, a former key legal adviser to then-Atty Gen. William French Smith, of making false representations in a memo urging the President to invoke executive privilege. He is now a Washington attorney.
The report charged that Hauser falsely certified that he had read the documents and claimed that they contained no evidence of wrongdoing. McGrath, a former assistant attorney general who is now a New York attorney, was accused of misleading the federal court about the lack of criminality in the materials. At the time, the court was considering a civil lawsuit filed by the Justice Department to shield Burford from prosecution on her contempt-of-Congress citation.
Dinkins, another former assistant attorney general who later became the department's No. 2 official, was criticized for playing a role similar to McGrath's. She is now an attorney in Houston.