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Lavelle Serving Sentence in San Diego : Convicted EPA Official Speaks Out on 'Plot' Against Her

May 11, 1986|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

Rita Marie Lavelle, the former Environmental Protection Agency official convicted of lying to the U.S. Congress in the celebrated Superfund scandal three years ago, is now raising money for cancer research and San Diego's homeless to fulfill her court-ordered penance.

But the feisty 38-year-old castaway from the Reagan Administration hardly appears remorseful. In fact, the woman who believes she was a national "scapegoat," says she is on the mend and merely wants to live a normal life again.

"In San Diego, people are wonderful," she said. "They've just opened up their hearts. There are still some people who are insecure enough to not have anything to do with me. Most people realize that Rita Lavelle is not a bad person."

Lavelle readily discusses her role in the Reagan Administration. She is quick to dispute the much-publicized description of her in a book written by her former EPA boss, Anne Burford Gorsuch: a fat, dumb, "blowzy" bleached blonde.

"First of all, I wasn't running for Miss Universe," Lavelle said. "I was applying for what I judged to be one of the toughest jobs in Washington. I was extremely well-qualified for that position, and history will prove that I did a good job."

In December, 1983, she made a different kind of history. She became the first Reagan appointee to be convicted of a crime when a federal jury convicted her of two counts of perjury, one count of obstructing a congressional investigation and another count of submitting a false "statement of certification."

The criminal charges were sparked by a bevy of congressional investigations into whether EPA officials under Reagan were too "friendly" to business or too politically motivated in their handling of the $1.6-billion Superfund for cleaning up toxic dumps.

The jury ruled that Lavelle, who administered the fund, lied to two congressional committees when she said it wasn't until June 17, 1982, that she learned of a potential conflict of interest because her former employer, Aerojet-General, had allegedly contributed wastes to the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside. The site was considered a high priority for Superfund funds, but had received only faint attention from the EPA.

An Aerojet vice president testified at her trial, however, that Lavelle called him on the telephone and discussed the firm's possible involvement on May 31, 1982.

While Lavelle maintains that the trial was about her memory--not political corruption--the convictions helped defuse the scandal that prompted the resignations or firings of more than 20 federal officials.

Lavelle, the only one to face criminal charges, was fined $10,000 and sentenced to six months in prison. She was released from federal prison in Pleasanton on Sept. 4 after serving four months and 20 days.

She said she took some time to travel with her father, a physician, and to visit with her family before settling in San Diego about two months ago.

As part of her sentence, she was put on probation for five years ("Outrageous!" she says now) and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service. She said she decided to put in that time at the St. Vincent de Paul Center, where, before her prison sentence, she had served food on the soup line.

This time she is not serving food but helping Father Joe Carroll, St. Vincent de Paul director, and his board of directors design a five-year financial plan, as well as help with fund-raising.

She is also on the board of directors and publicity chairman for the San Diego-Imperial Counties chapter of the AMC Cancer Research Center, based in Denver, Colo. Lavelle joined the group in March.

"When she got out of prison, I'm sure she didn't know what kind of reception she was going to get," said Jo Johnson, executive director of the AMC's San Diego-Imperial County Chapter.

But the fact that most of the board members, and a majority of San Diegans, didn't recognize her from the EPA scandal days has helped.

"Regardless of whether she's guilty or not guilty, people should be able to pick up their lives and go on," said Johnson, who praised Lavelle's work.

When not performing community service, the rest of Lavelle's time is consumed with starting up a consulting firm called Nu Tech Enterprises, which will help small and mid-sized companies comply with government regulations on toxic wastes and worker safety.

Then there is the effort to find a publisher for the 1,200-page manuscript Lavelle has written to vindicate her performance as Superfund administrator and to expose what she calls "the plot" by Gorsuch, Justice Department attorneys and White House officials to get rid of her during the EPA fracas.

"I've learned that sometimes life is not controllable," Lavelle said. "While I supposedly fell from what is considered by society to be a high, powerful position, I have my internal integrity. I've always had my internal self-worth. It went through quite a test. I feel very strong, but there's the occasional flashback, bad dreams."

In the Washington version of Educating Rita, Lavelle said, she learned that any ambitious public servant should include one item in his Capitol wardrobe: "A back protector."

"I have an empathy with a lot of people in pain," Lavelle said. "Now I feel that no one should be in high positions of public service unless they've suffered through something and not come through it untouched or unchallenged."

But Lavelle said she has learned to "let go" of the anger and resentment that have racked her. More than $1 million in debt from legal fees and house-sitting for a friend in the State College area of San Diego, Lavelle said she is looking forward, not back.

"Yeah, I'm on the mend," she said. "I just want the opportunity to once again become a taxpaying member of society.

"I don't want sympathy. I want opportunity. Just get out of my way. I made it before, I can make it again."

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