WASHINGTON -- Former EPA official Rita Lavelle, whose firing triggered a major controversy at the agency, was indicted on a contempt of Congress charge Friday for refusing to testify about Superfund toxic waste cleanups.
Ms. Lavelle failed to appear before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that sought to question her March 21 about allegations she worked with White House aides to set up a political schedule for release of cleanup money.
She became the first Environmental Protection Agency official to face criminal prosecution as a result of the recent stir that forced the departures of 21 political appointees from the agency.
If convicted, she faces up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for the single misdemeanor count. The indictment was issued by a federal grand jury at the U.S. courthouse in Washington just a week after the House voted 413-0 to cite her for contempt.
The grand jury still is investigating allegations of perjury and conflict of interest against Ms. Lavelle.
Federal law enforcement sources said prosecutors negotiated with Ms. Lavelle's attorney as late as Thursday evening on a plea-bargain agreement to avoid formal indictment, but she rejected the government's last offer.
Ms. Lavelle's attorney, former Watergate defense lawyer James Bierbower, said following the indictment, 'I always discuss cases with the prosecutors. That's just part of my method of operation.'
Bierbower declined to say whether he was seeking to exchange a guilty or 'no contest' plea in return for immunity from further prosecution.
Last week, chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee indicated his panel's investigation of White House involvement in the award of Superfund money would be stymied without Ms. Lavelle's testimony -- or President Reagan's cooperation.
He released a pre-election memo from Ms. Lavelle to Deputy White House chief of staff Michael Deaver that he charged 'confirms clear politicization' of the Superfund program. Dingell said the panel has heard secret testimony that Lavelle was in almost daily contact with another White House official.
Bierbower insisted he is willing to make Ms. Lavelle available to testify to the panel, even now that she has been indicted.
'They know that if they want her testimony, they can get it,' he said, asserting the panel has refused to let Ms. Lavelle see all of its files pertaining to her EPA activities in advance of her testimony.
Subcommittee aides argue the panel has offered Ms. Lavelle access to all materials removed from her office after Reagan fired her Feb. 7, and she still has refused to testify.
Stanley Harris, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, moved quickly in Ms. Lavelle's case. In contrast, he failed to prosecute former EPA administrator Anne Burford, whom the House voted in criminal contempt last fall for failing to turn over agency enforcement files.
'This is the first of what is likely to be a series of indictments growing out of the administration's EPA scandal,' said Rep. James Scheuer, D-N.Y.
Scheuer, whose House science and technology subcommittee has been investigating EPA, said he was 'pleased that the U.S. attorney was able to move quickly on this contempt citation.'
But he added, 'It's unfortunate that he and the administration chose to play politics on the Burford contempt citation.'
Justice Department officials held up prosecution of Mrs. Burford by filing a civil lawsuit challenging the constitutional right of Congress' to view the enforcement files.
A federal judge eventually dismissed the suit, but action against Mrs. Burford was dropped when the White House relented and agreed to provide access to the files for a half dozen congressional panels probing EPA.