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Rita: When the Reagan administration tapped an unlikely candidate to take care of toxic waste

Standing atop the crushed roof of a campus police car, a University of California student asks Cal students to identify themselves during third day of Free Speech Movement demonstrations at Berkeley. Rita Lavelle protested against the protesters at Berkeley. (AP Photo)
Standing atop the crushed roof of a campus police car, a University of California student asks Cal students to identify themselves during third day of Free Speech Movement demonstrations at Berkeley. Rita Lavelle protested against the protesters at Berkeley. (AP Photo)

During the early days of the first Reagan administration, the divide between the political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency and the career bureaucrats was stark.

The bureaucrats thought their political counterparts lacked the qualifications and know-how to protect the environment. And many of the political appointees thought the career staff — the scientists, attorneys, and other employees who worked for EPA administration after administration — were overly idealistic and out-of-touch.

So tensions were already high when former President Ronald Reagan nominated Rita Lavelle to head the EPA’s office of toxic waste. Lavelle was a communications professional who had worked with defense contractors and started her career working for Reagan when he was the governor of California. She was skeptical of the brand new Superfund law that was now part of her job. Many of her new colleagues at the EPA disdained her, and she knew it.

Ultimately, Lavelle found so much trouble in Washington that she left, never to return.

This episode of Captured tells the story of how Lavelle came to Washington and what her arrival meant for an already poisonous atmosphere at the agency.

Full episode transcript

Rita Lavelle: This is Rita. Can I help you?

Scott Tong: You’ve probably never heard of Rita Lavelle. I had not. But in the early years of the Reagan administration, Rita Lavelle found herself in the eye of a Washington storm. Over toxic chemicals in our neighborhoods. Over Poison in our water. And regulators getting cozy with polluters. This ended up being the first big scandal of the Reagan administration. And — spoiler alert — Rita Lavelle would end up paying for it. Since then, in the last 40 years, she has hardly talked about this. But thanks to my colleague Grace Tatter, Rita Lavelle talked to us. And it turns out she has a lot to say including about Superfund. That’s a law to clean up hazardous waste and make corporate polluters pay. Rita was in charge of implementing that law.

Lavelle: You asked me my position on this Superfund legislation. I resented them casting nefarious, evildoers as being these businesses that had polluted.

Tong: In fact, Rita Lavelle talked to us for seven hours. Not just about Superfund. She started at the beginning.

Lavelle: I grew up in Pasadena, California, and I’m the oldest of eight children. We were very strong Catholic family. I was always interested in politics.

Tong: A certain flavor of politics.

Lavelle: I supported Reagan. I was known as the radical wing.

Tong: As in very small government. Very big military. Rita’s worldview is shaped by tragedy.

Lavelle: In 1968, my junior year in college, my brother, my next oldest brother, Patrick, was killed in Vietnam and it was very traumatic for me. And I, to this day, blame Lyndon Johnson for pulling back the support of the troops at Khe San, and I feel that my brother was murdered as were a lot of other young men at that point.

Tong: In the late 1960s, Rita Lavelle attends a women’s Catholic college in northern California, which includes some classes at UC Berkeley.

(Soundbite of protests at Berkeley)

Tong: Yeah, that Berkeley. Hub of liberal, radical protests for free speech — and against the Vietnam War.

Lavelle: The leaders of the liberal movements never worked. Never worked. They had money all the way through school. They could go and do these demonstrations. They never really even had to appear in class.

Tong: But Rita Lavelle and her conservative friends … Well they protest the protesters. Naturally.

Lavelle: We were on TV and so forth, countering the movements in the supposedly ‘spontaneous,’ but we knew they weren’t spontaneous demonstrations and they were blowing up with bombs and fires and everything else — banks and industries, quite a bit like Antifa today.

Tong: Eventually, Rita’s work with the College Republicans lands her a job in the office of the Republican governor, Ronald Reagan. And then, after a stint at a defense contractor, she’s asked to follow President Reagan to Washington. It’s 1982. And Lavelle is tapped for the number two job at the EPA: assistant administrator to run this new Superfund program.

(Soundbite from archival video: If there’s a Superfund site in your neighborhood, you’re probably wondering what will happen. How will it be cleaned up, who will pay for the cleanup and what you can do to keep your family and community safe.)

Tong: Superfund is supposed to be used to clean up toxic waste sites and to make polluters pay for their past sins. It’s a big job, and Rita Lavelle is all of 34. She’s got a background in chemistry and industry, sure — but not the environment issues. How is she received in the EPA?

Lavelle: They hated me.

Tong: As we’ve been telling you, the agency is home to this underground resistance. And Rita, this Washington neophyte, has no idea what’s coming. What lines does she cross? How is she betrayed? And what does it mean for the air and water in our neighborhoods? From WBUR Podcasts and Here & Now, I’m Scott Tong, and this is Captured: A brazen attempt to take over the EPA, and the nerds and pencil pushers who pushed back.

Episode 3: Rita. Before Rita Lavelle is even confirmed, someone is calling, ‘Time out.’

Penny Newman: No matter what anybody said, we knew there was a problem. We knew it deep in our soul.

Tong: Remember Penny Newman? She’s the angry, activist mom in southern California whose town has been overrun by toxic chemicals from a nearby dump site called the Stringfellow Acid Pits. She and other parents are terrified their kids are being exposed to carcinogens. By 1982, Penny’s waited years for the government to act. And now this ultra conservative Rita Lavelle is gonna run the clean-up?

Newman: I saw that she had worked with Aerojet and we were very alarmed.

Tong: Rita’s most recent employer is Aerojet General, which made rocket engines for warplanes, missiles and the space shuttle program.

(Soundbite from video: Since reaction power was first applied to flight, Aerojet General has led in rocket propulsion. But furthermore, its concepts and products have carried men ever closer to mastery of seas below and space above.)

Tong: What is not in that promotional audio is that Aerojet is one of hundreds of companies that dumped toxic waste sludge into the Stringfellow Acid pits. Rita worked in communications for the company — which she’s now gonna hold accountable? Fox sighting in the regulatory henhouse.

Newman: It was kind of like, well, here we have this great law, but if it doesn’t get implemented, it’s not any good to us. 

Tong: Penny — that angry mom — she ain’t having it. So she and her neighbors scrape up some cash.

Newman: I’d never been in an airplane. I’d never been to D.C. So it was a big undertaking and I was the only one to testify against her at her confirmation hearing.

Tong: So Penny testifies. Nothing happens. Rita Lavelle is confirmed. Welcome to Washington.

Newman: I felt like I was being patted on the head and dismissed in a very patronizing way. So I was pretty disgusted with it. But I still had the belief that, okay, people are put in a place to do their job so they will watch them. And so maybe we’ll be okay. 

Tong: But there’s this thing about Washington, and I’ve learned this after living in this town for a very long time. See, when a party wins an election, it doesn’t just control the bully pulpit and pick people to run cabinet agencies. It also tilts how those agencies regulate: who they punish. Whether they punish. How they spend their enforcement money. Or their cleanup money.

Jim Tozzi: Elections means something. Okay?

Tong: That’s Jim Tozzi. In the early 80s he works in the White House budget office in the Reagan administration. Tozzi has a lot of power to block regulations deemed too costly. And later, he’ll become a lobbyist for Big Tobacco and other industries. He’s a Washington graybeard. I’ve talked with him plenty of times over the years, and I met him outside to talk politics and regulations.

Tozzi: I’m 84 years old and I’ve seen all this. And maybe I’ve seen too much. Maybe I’m sort of rationalizing what is, instead of trying to change what is okay, but I don’t think you’re going to change the law of gravity and water goes downhill. And I don’t think you’re going to change the idea that regular elections means something and to the extent they can help the people in their party, they’re going to come first, nor do I think anything’s wrong with it. Elections mean something. 

Tong: Yeah, Jim Tozzi? He says the quiet stuff super loud.

Tozzi: Rest assured, I’m not changing my mind.

Tong: That I know.

Tozzi: (Laughs) I know this reporter for a long time.

Tong: So, in comes Rita Lavelle, to run a big new government program in a rather free-market sort of way.

Lavelle: I was an ideologue consistent with their ideology. I could be trusted and they could put me in a position of responsibility and I would perform.

Tong: Now, this is about the time she clashes with this resistance we’ve mentioned in past episodes, of these little people on the EPA staff who know where the tunnels are? Let’s just say a lot of them are skeptical of Rita.

Ed Kurent: Rita Lavelle was basically a stamp licker and an envelope stuffer from wherever she came from out in California. 

Tong: Attorney Ed Kurent is working on Superfund enforcement when Rita comes in as his boss. Now, we heard from him earlier: Ed’s the one who went up to the big boss agency head Anne Gorsuch who proceeded to tell him she planned to eliminate his job. And now, his new supervisor is Rita Lavelle.

Kurent: This woman was a bimbo. And I say that without any sexist connotation, but it’s the best way I can describe her. 

Tong: Side note — can you say bimbo without being sexist?

Kurent: She didn’t have a clue about what was going on. She was being told what to do. She loved bragging about, ‘I was at the White House the other day, I was at, I was over here. I was up on the Hill.’ She was like living this glorified life that somebody had handed somebody who had been stuffing envelopes on the political trail. And she was totally out of her depth. I mean, totally. She wasn’t close to being qualified. She was, she might have, I might not have hired her as a secretary in my division.

Tong: Oof. Okay, Ed Kurent. We get the picture. But for Rita Lavelle, it gets worse. You may recall what Anne Gorsuch said earlier in the series about women in Washington and their appearances?

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: Now, how that is any way related to the public’s right to know about the environment will remain to me at least forever a mystery.) 

Tong: Well here is how Anne talks about Rita in her memoir. Here’s the voice of our colleague at Here & Now, producer Jorgelina Manna-Rea.

Jorgelina Manna-Rea: When I first saw Rita Lavelle, I was not favorably impressed. That may sound cruel, but it is the truth. The woman does not make a favorable physical impression. She is overweight, an unnatural blonde and her appearance is blowsy. 

Tong: What? This ‘may sound cruel?’ Can we just cringe collectively at this awful commentary about Rita’s appearance? Talk about a double standard. Tell me the last time you heard this about a man. Anyway, Rita Lavelle knows that her staff is whispering about her.

Lavelle: Everybody was laughing at these Reagan appointees, especially, you know, over cocktails and in the bars because, ‘They were outsiders. They thought they knew how to change things and their positions were stupid. They’re just imbeciles. We have to wait for them to get gone. And then, you know, we’ll be back in charge or we can run them in and they think they’re in charge.’ I mean, it was a very, very, very — oh, it was just awful. It was awful.

Tong: There is, of course, a reason for this pushback. Don’t forget, Rita Lavelle is not even a fan of the environmental law that she’s supposed to enforce. And pretty soon, Rita’s in her own toxic mess. Be right back.

Tong: Maybe you’ve noticed by now. Rita Lavelle — she has this conflict of interest. She’s supposed to punish a company that she worked for. Now in Washington, there’s a way to deal with this. It’s called recusal. Simply put, you step aside. Let others take the wheel. You may remember Jeff Sessions did that.

(Soundbite of Jeff Sessions at a news conference: At my confirmation hearing, I promised that I would do this if a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with the department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed.)

Tong: He supported the Trump campaign in 2016. But later, his Justice Department investigated that very campaign for wrongdoing. So, Jeff Sessions recused himself.

(Soundbite of Jeff Sessions at a news conference: I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.)

Tong: Rita Lavelle, in her confirmation hearings, she promises to recuse herself from any cases involving her old company, Aerojet. Now, zip forward — and this date really matters — zip forward to May 28, 1982. Lavelle’s meeting with her staff about going after companies that dumped waste into the Stringfellow Acid Pits in California. And Ed Kurent tells her that Aerojet is one of those companies.

Kurent: As I hope you understand, I was not a guy who just sat in the corner and swallowed everything that was going on. I mean, I would, I would ask them things that they needed to respond to. They needed to understand that,  you know, there’s the law and there’s what you want to do. And there are standards by which things get done.

Tong: Now Ed Kurent doesn’t remember a lot of specifics from that meeting. But — fortunately for us —  there is a guy who does.

Dick Frandsen: My duties were involved with the oversight responsibilities of the energy and commerce committee over agencies within their jurisdiction, which included the EPA. 

Tong: That’s Dick Frandsen, an investigator in Congress. Last episode, we learned how EPA staffers are feeding him inside info about how the agency is not enforcing rules, and how it’s doling out sweetheart deals to chemical companies and oil refineries. Dick Frandsen and his team will later write up what they learn about Rita Lavelle.

Frandsen: She doesn’t leave the meeting after that. The record shows Ed Kurent, who is a, maybe this senior enforcement official there, caught up with her and talked to her and said, ‘You know, this, this raises the issue for you because it’s Aerojet, in terms of your recusal.’ And she says, ‘Oh yeah.’ Or something. And goes on.

Tong: That will be Rita Lavelle’s undoing. See, she should have recused herself as soon as the conflict came up. But three days after this meeting, according to Frandsen’s committee report,: no recusal. In fact, Lavelle even calls a lawyer at Aerojet, to talk about the EPA’s Stringfellow case. This according to EPA staffers who later testify to Congress.

Deb Dalton: She didn’t have a clue.

Tong: Deb Dalton’s a scientist on the EPA Superfund staff. We’ve heard from her before. And Deb writes a critical memo a couple weeks later.

Dalton: My job was to write a memo and explain that for legal reasons, she needed to recuse. She needed to not read anything about it. And we weren’t going to send her anything about it personally, and that she wasn’t supposed to go hang out with anybody from Aerojet. She wasn’t supposed to tell them anything. And so we actually had a meeting, a number of us, to talk about it, to explain it to her, because she didn’t have a clue. You know, and she’s, she’s like, ‘But these are my former colleagues,’ and we’re going, you know …

Tong: That’s the point.

Dalton: That’s the point, right.

Tong: And yet, Rita finally does recuse herself. But not until four days after this meeting. I asked her: ‘Why the delay?’

Lavelle: Aerojet was never, never cited as a responsible party. It was a total lie. Aerojet was never named as the responsible party.

Tong: Responsible party: The legal term for the polluting companies on the hook for the clean-up. At this point, the government is still investigating who the responsible parties might be.

Tong: Are you saying that there was never any intention to name Aerojet as a responsible party?

Lavelle: And they never did. Sorry to raise my voice, but I’m just so irritated over the whole thing. Basically it was a scheme to get me the heck out of Stringfellow because they weren’t performing, Scott. I wanted some people fired because they weren’t performing on the Aerojet situation and a lot of other situations.

Tong: As Rita sees it, she was set up. That is, her staff didn’t want to clean up Stringfellow. And she did. That’s her version. Now Rita is correct about Aerojet. It wasn’t ultimately named as a responsible party. But the point is, she should’ve left the room as soon as her old employer came up. And she didn’t. And the gears of scandal will soon start to turn. Until then, though, Rita has another big problem.

Lavelle: Have you spoken with Kaufman? He’ll speak to anybody.

Tong: How do you solve a problem like Hugh Kaufman? If you live in D.C., you may have seen him on TV.

(Soundbite from archival news: Better known as Rubber Chicken Man… )

Tong: Rubber Chicken Man. Yeah, let’s explain: Hugh Kaufman is a huge fan of the Washington Nationals baseball team. Full disclosure, so am I. But, I don’t end up on TV the way Hugh Kaufman does.

(Soundbite of  Hugh Kaufman from blog: I’ve been following the Nats since the 1940s. And they were always in last place. But then they started to wobble a little bit. So I said, we have to have a chicken sacrifice. I realized that they would throw me out of the stadium if we did a real chicken so I got a rubber chicken.)

Tong: And, yes. To appease the baseball gods, he pretends to sacrifice this pretend chicken. That’s how Hugh gets on TV. And to his credit, that’s just the kind of guy he is even pushing 80 -years -old.

Kaufman: You know, I’m a bit of a hambone.  

Tong: Kaufman has spent his career at the EPA, working on toxic waste issues going back to its creation during the Nixon administration. And when he thinks the agency has gone soft, he blabs about it. No matter who’s in charge. One might say Rubber Chicken Man started his whistleblowing career under Jimmy Carter, raising red flags about a toxic site called Love Canal.

(Soundbite from documentary

Brit Hume: As a matter of official responsibility, how do you characterize that kind of an action and attitude.

Kaufman: Despicable. It’s just, it’s just unconscionable.)

Tong: A guy saying the government is being unconscionable on TV is definitely gonna have Rita Lavelle in his crosshairs. He talks smack to the press about how she’s underqualified — and she is not having it.

Lavelle: Kaufman was running around the country and holding press conferences on his own when supposedly on personal leave, right. And hold conferences and say stuff like, um, ‘EPA is not telling you, but your groundwater and your drinking water is poisoned. And I know this. I’m an EPA official and they’re trying to silence me, but I’m here to help you anyway.’ And he’d go on and on in these press conferences, of course the press eat it up without doing any sort of homework. 

Tong: Rita tells me that someone else at the EPA — a former Carter administration appointee — told her to watch out for Hugh Kaufman. And to be honest, based on many interviews, Hugh Kaufman does not seem to have a lot of friends in the agency.

Lavelle: So it was a bipartisan, ‘This idiot has to go.’ So I started looking at this, I went, ‘Oh my God, there’s gotta be some way to silence him or get him to reel it in and start, you know, let’s get him busy.’ I wasn’t out to terminate him so much as I was trying to box him. 

Tong: Wasn’t trying to terminate him? Well, Hugh Kaufman goes on a work trip to give a speech in Meadville, Pennsylvania. And according to Kaufman, the Reaganites?

Kaufman: They had agents following me to see if I was doing something illegal or something embarrassing that they could use to shut me up. And they found that I went to a motel with a woman. 

Tong: Busted. Hugh Kaufman is having an affair on the EPA’s dime! Now that’s evidence you can use to fire somebody. Mission accomplished.

Tong: They thought they had you.

Kaufman: They thought they had me. Exactly. It was my wife.

Tong: Oops. Not Hugh’s sidepiece. It was his wife. She just has a different last name from him. No funny business. Hugh Kaufman thinks Rita Lavelle is behind all of this. So you can imagine what he thinks of her.

Kaufman: And she was strong, but in a different way. Not intellectually strong, not strong as a person who has a deep understanding of things, but strong, more like a sociopath.

Tong: Rita admits to us that she was trying to dig up dirt on Kaufman to follow up on accusations he had abused his sick leave.

Lavelle: I said, okay, let’s look at his phone records, see what he’s doing, and is any of it on EPA time and blah, blah, blah.

Tong: Ultimately, an investigation by the Labor Department sides with Hugh Kaufman, finding that Rita Lavelle — among others — ordered surveillance of him that interfered with his First Amendment rights. One of the sites Hugh was using his freedom to speak about, back in the summer of 1982, is the site where Rita Lavelle has this conflict of interest: the Stringfellow Acid Pits. By now, Rita has recused herself. So she’s not on the Stringfellow case anymore. But controversy? It sticks around. See, at EPA headquarters, staffers are still working to clean up the site, despite less than ideal office conditions. We’ve told you in previous episodes, these are not deluxe digs. Heidi Hughes [Heidi Hughes Bumpers] is an EPA staff lawyer at the time.

Heidi Hughes Bumpers: Every time it rained, you had to put tarps over your desk because the roof leaked and we had original documents that we were working with original, you know, litigation documents. And you had to make sure that, you know, if you were gone over the weekend and there was a lot of rain that rained didn’t come down. 

Tong: Heidi has a bigger mess on her hands: Stringfellow.

Hughes Bumpers: It was a terrible problem. And the, you know, groundwater contamination and the plume that was leaving the site, the toxic materials that were leaving the site in that plume was at some very high concentrations. And it was a site that needed immediate attention.

Tong: By the summer of 1982, Heidi and her colleagues have a detailed plan to clean up the site. But then Anne halts the money.

Hughes Bumpers: There was discussion about delaying that funding until after the November 1982 elections, because they didn’t want the California delegation or the California governor to get credit for the cleanup of the site.

Tong: In other words, they didn’t want to give the Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, a political win on the environment. According to Dick Frandsen, the Congressional investigator, this is how Anne Gorsuch put it.

Frandsen: On Aug. 4, 1982, Administrator Gorsuch, during a luncheon aboard the presidential yacht with senior administration officials reportedly said, ‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Brown, the governor of California, take credit for that,’ in reference to the Stringfellow cleanup.

Tong: By now, a lot of committees in Congress have been asking the EPA a lot of questions about Superfund. And the EPA is responding. But when they ask about the delay at Stringfellow , and a few other sites, the information stops. Here’s Congressman Elliot Levitas, a Democrat from Georgia.

Levitas: When the top people in the agency come out of their seclusion in high-rise buildings and take an active role in shutting down or trying to shut down a congressional investigation, you know, something’s wrong. You can smell the rat.

Tong: Congress picks up the chase. That’s next on Captured.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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