WASHINGTON -- The chairman of a House committee, sensing a possible 'criminal coverup,' wants the FBI to investigate the shredding of subpoenaed documents by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Rep. James Howard, D-N.J., head of the House Public Works Committee, requested the inquiry Friday in a firmly worded letter to Attorney General William French Smith.
'The conduct of this entire affair, by the White House, the Justice Department, and the EPA, is beginning to smell suspiciously like a criminal cover-up of wrongdoing in the enforcement of the Superfund waste disposal law,' Howard wrote.
'If I were to sum it up in one word, it might well be 'Sewergate,'' he said.
Justice Department officials could not be reached for comment. An FBI spokesman, Dave Divan, said the agency would 'await the review of the Department of Justice and act accordingly.'
Howard told Smith he was 'disturbed and shocked' by reports EPA officials destroyed copies of subpoenaed toxic waste documents. Congress wants the material as part of its investigation into EPA's handling of the Superfund.
The EPA said Thursday 'excess copies' -- not originals -- had been put through paper shredders at agency headquarters.
Stanley Brand, general counsel to the House clerk, warned EPA General Counsel Robert Perry earlier in the week that any destruction of subpoenaed documents could be grounds for criminal prosecution.
EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch was cited for contempt of Congress Dec. 16 for refusing, under President Reagan's orders, to provide some of the documents to congressional committees.
The Justice Department began a fresh round of negotiations Friday aimed at ending the EPA's fight with Congress over release of the documents.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the administration was trying to arrange a meeting with Rep. Elliott Levitas, D-Ga., chairman of the House Public Works subcommittee that brought the original contempt citation against Mrs. Gorsuch.
Deputy Attorney General Edward Schmults telephoned Levitas twice Friday about a possible compromise to end the dispute, a Levitas aide said. Details of their conversation or the proposal were not revealed.
Howard, in his letter to Smith, wrote, 'I believe it is imperative ... that you direct agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take whatever steps are necessary to assure the integrity of these subpoenaed records and to thoroughly investigate the circumstances surrounding their destruction.'
He said the security of the documents was 'essential to our investigation' of charges that EPA was not requiring major chemical companies to pay their full share of the costs of cleaning up toxic waste dump sites the firms created.
Addressing Smith directly, Howard wrote: 'Your department has permitted circumstances to exist which have resulted in the destruction of subpoenaed documents raises the most serious questions concerning the responsibility of the department for these recent events.'
The House clerk's office warned the EPA Thursday not to use newly acquired paper shredders to destroy subpoenaed documents. It cited 'disturbing information' that shredders were moved into the an agency office since the Dec. 16 House vote to cite Mrs. Gorsuch for contempt.
'Any willful destruction of the documents subpoenaed by the House could constitute criminal offenses that carry severe sanctions,' Stanley Brand, general counsel to the House clerk, wrote EPA General Counsel Robert Perry.
Thursday's White House meeting included Attorney General William French Smith, chief of staff James Baker, presidential counselor Edwin Meese, and presidential lawyer Fred Fielding.
Also Thursday, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee headed by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., voted to subpoena 36 present and former EPA officials to testify about the investigation of EPA's toxic waste cleanup program.
Among the 36 individuals subpoenaed is Rita Lavelle, the assistant administrator for the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program fired by Reagan Monday.
The panel also demanded Mrs. Gorsuch provide documents concerning toxic waste cleanup operations at Stringfellow Acid Pits near Los Angeles; Tar Creek, Okla.; the Berlin-Farro facility in Michigan; plus Imperial and Shenandoah Stables, two dioxin-contaminated sites in Missouri.
Dingell said his subcommittee voted to issue 39 subpoenas, 36 of them to compel testimony by officials, during a nearly three-hour, closed-door meeting. Mrs. Gorsuch was not subpoenaed, but Dingell aides said she could be summoned if she fails to turn over the requested files.
The panel also issued separate subpoenas requiring Mrs. Gorsuch and Ms. Lavelle to turn over Ms. Lavelle's diaries and calendars -- sought by another panel in an investigation of possible perjury by the ex-aide.
There also were developments Thursday indicating some of the worst toxic waste sites in the $1.6 billion Superfund were put on an 'election track:'
-Rep. James Florio, D-N.J., said Ms. Lavelle advised Mrs. Gorsuch in a memo before last November's election that releasing funds early to cleanup the Stringfellow site in California might help former Democratic Gov. Edmund Brown's senatorial campaign.
-A former staff member in the California governor's office under Brown told United Press International he received a call before the election in which an EPA official in Washington said 'games were being played' with $6.1 million for that site. Mrs. Gorsuch said Wednesday the money for the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Glen Avon, Calif., was delayed pending a legal opinion on whether the government should provide 50 percent or 90 percent matching funds to California.