WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has opened a preliminary inquiry into allegations that White House and former Justice Department officials deliberately withheld information from two House panels investigating the Environmental Protection Agency, officials said Tuesday.
The officials, who declined to be identified, said that the inquiry was begun in recent weeks in response to charges made in a report on the EPA investigation by the House Judiciary Committee.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, scheduled to testify today before the committee on department appropriations, is expected to acknowledge that the preliminary inquiry is under way.
Last December, the panel found possible misconduct by several Justice Department lawyers and Deputy White House Counsel Richard Hauser in the way they handled EPA files subpoenaed first by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee and later by the Judiciary Committee.
In urging President Reagan to withhold files from the EPA's Superfund toxic waste cleanup program on grounds of "executive privilege," the report charged, Justice Department officials had not reviewed the documents to ensure that they contained no evidence of agency misconduct.
Panel Questioned Conduct
In addition, the report charged that two department officials and an EPA lawyer falsely certified to the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that they had reviewed all of the files and that none contained evidence of improprieties. It said they were aware at the time of evidence of political manipulation of a toxic waste cleanup.
The report also alleged that Hauser said he had reviewed all the files when he had not.
After those charges were disclosed, a majority of the House Judiciary Committee invoked a provision of the Ethics in Government Act and asked Meese to seek appointment of an independent counsel to conduct an inquiry. That request required Meese to state within 30 days whether he would ask a special court to appoint the outside prosecutor.
The department told the committee after that 30-day period that it was still studying the voluminous, 1,284-page committee report and request, which drew protests from Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino (D-N.J.) and other panel members.
The Ethics in Government Act requires the attorney general to launch a 90-day preliminary inquiry after receiving information that officials covered by the act may have violated federal laws.
Since the preliminary inquiry has been opened, FBI agents have questioned EPA attorneys and others about the allegations, which Hauser and the other officials have firmly denied.
One source familiar with the investigation said that Meese had "no choice" but to conduct the preliminary inquiry because of the specifics in the House committee report.
However, the source said, "this doesn't necessarily mean that the department thinks there's something there."