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Permanent capture: What a decades-old scandal at the EPA tell us about power in Washington today

The tenure of former President Ronald Reagan’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, ended with firings, resignations from dozens of political appointees, and, for one deputy administrator, a prison sentence.

The scandal paved the way for the return of William Ruckelshaus, who had been the very first EPA administrator under former President Richard Nixon, and was admired by scientists and lawmakers alike.

This leadership change was what many in Washington wanted. A non-profit, Save EPA, worked with staffers within the agency to put political pressure on the White House and redirect the agency. When Reagan appointed someone new to lead the EPA, many people who worked there were thrilled. They even made T-shirts.

But after all of that, how do we ensure a system that effectively regulates industry? In the fifth and final episode of Captured, we explore whether the bureaucrats and government workers who plotted and leaked documents to “save the EPA” ultimately got what they wanted. We look at the costs to the individuals who came to represent an ideology. And we ask what conditions the EPA needs to be effective today.

Full episode transcript

Scott Tong: It’s March, 1983. The vultures are circling around EPA administrator Anne Burford, formerly Anne Gorsuch.

(Soundbite from archival news: The steady drip, drip of stories about the troubled Environmental Protection Agency continued unabated today … )

Tong: One of Anne’s top deputies, Rita Lavelle, has just been fired during a scandal over industry ties. But there’s direct pressure on Anne herself. The EPA administrator has been held in contempt of Congress. You know, that big mark of shame in Washington? And now, her political friends on the bus throw her under it. First, Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice tells Anne it doesn’t have her back.

(Soundbite from archival news: Angered over a Justice Department announcement that it would no longer represent her before Congress, she lashed out through aides. She claimed she had been left high and dry to defend herself against legal problems that had been created by White House decisions — decisions, she added, that she had not agreed with in the first place.) 

Tong: Remember: Anne was following orders from the Justice Department and the White House. They wanted an

executive privilege fight with Congress. A test case.

(Soundbite of Anne: Perhaps the most ill-founded claim of executive privilege this country’s ever been put through.)

Tong: She never liked the idea. But still, she stuck with it. Even so, the Reagan administration deserts her. And then  Republicans in Congress walk away too. Here’s Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, interviewed by PBS’s Jim Lehrer.

(Soundbite from archival news

Jim Lehrer: You don’t care how she goes, as long as she goes and is replaced by a scientist.

Rudy Boschwitz: I don’t care what happens except that the EPA should be made a more effective agency than it now is.)

Tong: This is exactly where Anne’s enemies want her. We’ve told you about this self-styled resistance of EPA staffers and their friends outside the building stirring up this scandal. For two years, they have schemed to inflict political pain on the Reagan administration. Here’s ex-EPA executive Bill Drayton.

Bill Drayton: We had to get to the political people in the White House and convince them ultimately that this is costing you and it’s gonna cost you more. 

Tong: Drayton is a key head of the resistance, which is signaling to the White House: If you go easy on polluters, it’s gonna backfire. Because Americans, they care about the environment. Now the casualty, of course, is Anne. But for a moment, Ronald Reagan wavers on her fate. He writes in his diary that her idea — to just give  Congress the documents it wants — ‘may have a point.’ Holding back documents, to him, gives the appearance of a cover-up. Reagan almost seems to feel bad for her. But not bad enough.

(Soundbite from archival news: Once again, in a strange turn, the president reiterated his position on her keeping her job, but White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes said the president has not barred his staff from seeking her resignation.)

Tong: By March 10, 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford is gone.

(Soundbite from archival news

Reporter: Did you jump or were you pushed? 

Anne Burford: I submitted my resignation to the president yesterday afternoon at 5 o’clock.)

Tong: What becomes of Anne? What becomes of Rita? And after they fall, does the system change? I’m Scott Tong. And from WBUR Podcasts and Here & Now, this is Captured: A brazen attempt to take over the EPA, and the nerds and pencil pushers who pushed back. Episode five: permanent capture.

(Soundbite from archival news:  

Reporter: But what do you think of the news media coverage of these events and did it contribute to your decision to resign? 

Burford: Well on that score, I will tell you that it is difficult to lead a normal life when there are people camped outside my front yard and who follow me during my whole day. I have always tried to conduct business in the open with the windows open with the lights on. And when you have to make sure all your drapes are closed every minute, you can’t go on with your job.)

Tong: Anne will later recall that her teenage son, Neil Gorsuch — you know the one — is angry she quit. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong,’ she’ll recall him saying. ‘You only did what the president ordered. Why are you quitting? You raised me not to be a quitter.’ Of course the quitting of a woman known by subordinates as ‘the Ice Queen’ is celebrated by some.

Deb Dalton: ‘We survived the Ice Queen’s acid reign.’

Tong: That’s EPA scientist Deb Dalton. And she’s saying ‘rain’ spelled R-E-I-G-N. Get it? The reign of Queen Anne? By now you’ve heard from Deb a few times. She was there when the Gorsuch EPA whacked away its own budget. When it made an ‘enemies list’ of critics in the building who got sidelined. When it hollowed out enforcement of environmental rules. Deb felt Anne was a bully and that Rita was inept. And Deb was among the staffers to testify against their bosses, sealing their fates. In the end, Deb and her peers make these congratulatory T-shirts. She still has hers. On the front it reads ‘I survived the Ice Queen’s Acid Reign.’ And on the back:

Dalton: We had all of the Reagan appointees and basically had them crossed off as they were either fired or resigned due to mismanagement.

Tong: One by one, Reagan’s political appointees at the EPA get nudged out after Anne is gone. Elliot Levitas, the Democratic congressman who investigated the whole thing, acknowledges the toll on Anne.

(Soundbite of archival news: If she is a victim at all, she is a victim in the sense that she was made a scapegoat and a sacrificial lamb, and someone has offered her head on a tray instead of dealing with the issues. I think in some respects the administration, it has dealt very unkindly with Mrs. Burford. They were the ones who ordered her not to turn over these documents.)

(Soundbite of Ronald Reagan from archival news: Today, I’m pleased to announce my intention to nominate William D. Ruckelshaus to become the next administrator of the EPA.)

Tong: To clean the slate, Ronald Reagan replaces Anne, the failed D.C. rookie, with an old, experienced Washington hand:

(Soundbite of from archival news: I guess my immediate task, as I see it, is to stabilize EPA) 

Tong: More, after the break.

Tong: William Ruckelshaus was actually the very first head of the EPA picked by President Nixon after he created the agency in 1970. Ruckelshaus returns in 1983 to bipartisan support and the love of scientists and staffers alike. So, damage controlled. Time to move on. Right? Except, in scandals like this, for the people who get tossed overboard. We tend not to hear much from them. But Anne writes a book a few years later, in which she vents about her former idol, Ronald Reagan. ‘When congressional criticism about the EPA began to touch the presidency,’ she writes, ‘Mr. Reagan solved his problem by jettisoning me and my people, people whose only ‘crime’ was loyal service … while his staff continues to do some very dirty work.’ She frames Reagan as an environmental pretender.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: You’ll know that the president never has made a speech or even dedicated a major portion of any speech to the environmental issues of the country.)

Tong: And she goes after Reagan’s lawyers in the White House and at the Justice Department.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: They had made serious misrepresentations of material facts to the president, to the administrator, EPA to Congress and to the courts. I knew contemporaneously that they were poor lawyers and poor politicians. I didn’t know until just this last month that they were also liars.)

Tong: Here’s what she means: An investigation found the Reagan administration, including its Justice Department, gave Congress ‘false and misleading’ information about a variety of topics during the EPA showdown. This is the same Justice Department that abandoned Anne during the scandal. Congressman John Dingell asked her about this during a hearing.

(Soundbite from archival audio of hearing: 

John Dingell: Why did you feel that the Department of Justice would not represent your interests and do so consistently?

Gorsuch: Oh, Mr. Chairman, so many reasons.

Dingell: History has proven your judgment to be correct?

Gorsuch: I guess that’s the best reason of all, but, when we first got into this they consistently said that they would take this case all the way to the Supreme Court and obviously that has not happened or occurred.)

Tong: It appears she’s getting even in public. But it may contribute even more to her isolation. Because Anne’s political career is over. Joel Mintz, a former EPA lawyer, interviews her a couple years after she quits for a book on environmental enforcement.

Joel Mintz: She had a tiny little office in a law firm that did not have her name on the door. She was not named in the firm. So she was in this tiny cramped office and she was chain smoking all the time. I had to change shirts, literally, after the interview.

Tong: To Mintz, she seemed broken. ‘Just kind of a wreck.’ She was totally out of the limelight, and out of politics. She died in 2004 at the 62. Her son told The Washington Post that she spent the remainder of her career practicing law focused on child advocacy in her home state of Colorado. We reached out to her children for this series — one declined, and the two others, including Justice Neil Gorsuch, didn’t respond. There are, of course, many paths to irrelevance. That was Anne’s story. What about Rita Lavelle’s? One of Anne’s top deputies.

You will recall she got fired as Congress was sniffing into a conflict of interest, having to do with her old employer. Rita was convicted of lying to Congress. Perjury. Ultimately, she served four months in prison.

Tong: Are you glad you went to Washington?

Rita Lavelle: No. (Laughs). It would have been much easier had I never done that. It wouldn’t have been as personally expensive to me. I’m basically blacklisted from gainful employment. I very rarely share anything about my background. You’re the first one I’ve talked to in years.  

Tong: Rita says she never went back to D.C. Today, she’s in her home state of California working as a tax professional.

Lavelle: I’ve been blessed with a lot of clients up here now who don’t even know who I am. And don’t even care. I’m attempting to pull my life back together. I did have a meeting with Meese.

Tong: Ed Meese was her political benefactor. He became White House counselor and attorney general under Ronald Reagan. Meese met Rita in California politics in the 1970s, and he helped her get jobs in the governor’s office, and later at the EPA in Washington. Years later, Rita is in legal trouble again. And she asks Ed Meese for help.

Lavelle: And, I started crying in front of him. I had written out how I defended him and basically just asked him as a human being to help me. He said, ‘Well, you got to understand, I’m a former attorney general, and I can’t interfere in anything.’ I was just aghast. And I started crying and I said ‘Sir, I’m only asking for one thing, please.’ And he said, ‘Well, I won’t help.’ And then he said, because I had put on weight that ‘Frankly, Rita, you’re looking a little chubby.’ He said, ‘You know, the president does daily weight training. And I thought to myself ‘Well hell, you’re chubbier than I am.’ He says, ‘You’ve got to get that weight off.’ That’s what he said to me! I was just devastated with that conversation.

Tong: We tried to run this account by Ed Meese. He declined to respond. So that’s some of the human cost of these kinds of scandals. But who benefited? For those who worked to topple Rita and Anne — Did they get what they wanted in the end? Did they get cleaner water, free of poisons? Good government that can repel special interests and regulatory capture? I ask this question to various members of the ‘resistance.’ To be sure they were vindicated. And yet, there’s almost always a ‘Yeah, but.’ ‘Yeah, but the fight never ends.’ Here’s Caroline Isber, of the Save EPA group.

Caroline Isber: I was thrilled, but all these years later, I’m a little more cynical. I think we all need to watch for it happening again 

Tong: ‘Watch for it happening, again.’ And let’s be real; You don’t have to be cynical to assume Washington is in the pocket of Big Business, Big Oil, Big Tech, Defense contractors. I’ve mentioned I got onto this story in the first place because of eerie parallels to this question of government ‘capture’ in the Trump years.

Isber: The Trump administration and the Reagan administration tried to do almost the exact same thing. They both tried to cut the budget by about a third and they had ambitions to cut the personnel by two-thirds. It’s an attempt to make enforcement impossible. 

Tong: And in fact, enforcement did fall in both administrations. Scott Pruitt was President Trump’s first EPA head. Here is his very first speech to the agency staff.

(Soundbite of Pruitt: Regulators exist to give certainty to those they regulate.)

Tong: He is framing the agency’s job not so much about cleaner air or cleaner water or the climate, but about the companies it regulates. Pruitt moved to undo rules on coal plants and car emissions. He pushed President Trump to pull out of the Paris Climate Deal. How different is that from Anne Gorsuch’s EPA letting Dow Chemical suggest edits to a report on Dow Chemical? We’ve told you that story. Or, from Anne lighting up a smoke at the oil industry lobby and declaring she’s ‘here to help’? In fact, her commitment to a leaner EPA with fewer regulators seems to echo — perhaps indirectly — with a new ruling from the Supreme Court curbing the EPA’s ability to regulate coal. One justice, in that case, noted the ‘explosive growth’ in government regulators. He is Anne’s son: Neil Gorsuch.

All of this makes you wonder: Is government capture a feature of government, not a bug? Is this just how the system is? Leif Fredrickson says, ‘yeah, pretty much. It’s built-in.’ He’s a professor of public history at the University of Montana and he curates a program on EPA history. Fredrickson explains that big corporate lobbies and the companies they represent, they dominate the expertise about their industries. They own the data.

Leif Fredrickson: They often hold a lot of the information, which means they hold a lot of the cards about what is true? I mean, what are the effects of these things, what is possible to change, what is not possible to change and so on. And to a certain extent, you know, the agency do their own research and stuff, but they don’t have the capacity to research everything, they have to rely to some extent on these companies themselves that they’re supposed to be regulating. And so, you know, I mean, it provides all kinds of opportunities for these companies to either, perhaps in broad ways,but even in just more subtle ways, to kind of shift the conversation towards, you know, a more conservative approach and so on.

Tong: Industry can dominate the debate. But there’s an even bigger imbalance in the system that experts like Leif talk about a lot. It’s about incentives: Special interests get huge rewards for capturing the government. So they do. Whereas you and I, the general public, we gain very little from pushing back on a few companies. So we don’t. That means the ingredients for capture are always there. Now, before you throw up your hands, keep in mind, Congress can still pass laws that protect the environment, and empower the EPA. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act that was passed in August of 2022 restored a tax on chemical and oil companies, and that money will go to clean up Superfund sites. And Congress can still investigate the way it looked into Anne Gorsuch and Rita Lavelle. It can issue subpoenas, it can hold people in contempt. Just look at the ongoing January 6th hearings.

(Soundbite from archival news: The select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks on the capitol will be in order.)

Tong: But our story is mainly about another lever of accountability: the quieter actions of individuals, in government and outside, and sometimes far away from Washington, like Penny Newman.

Penny Newman: I think one of the lessons I’ve learned is that every victory is a temporary victory.

Tong: That’s Penny from episode one. Remember: she’s the mom in Glen Avon, California, whose town gets hit with these toxic floodwaters in the 1970s. Remember the foam in the water?

Newman: Kids had been going to school, they’d been playing in these puddles and, you know, making beards out of the foam that they came across and becoming toxic snowmen.

Tong: Newman has been fighting for her community ever since. She runs a nonprofit now, focused on environmental health. She’s still bugging state and federal officials about the Stringfellow Acid Pits site, which, by the way, is still not totally cleaned up. It’s still on the EPA’s list of the most toxic sites. Now, as climate change delivers bigger storms like Hurricane Harvey in Houston, we will have more floods floating up toxic waste from Superfund sites and likely more public health threats in communities like where Penny Newman lives in Glen Avon, California.

Newman: You have to be vigilant and you have to keep fighting the good fight because at some point people are going to try and backtrack on it and that’s what’s happened here.

Tong: What Penny is onto, I think, is the fragility of not just our ecosystems, but the ecosystem of government.

Newman: For our system to operate, we, as citizens have to be involved all the time and you have to make it part of your life or else someone else is going to make the decisions for you and your family. 

Tong: When I think about government ‘capture’, I think about that game capture the flag we played as kids. I loved it. I wonder: If there will always be special interests who plan and deke and run at the flag, whose job is it to scheme and plot and defend the flag? Whose job is to keep poison out of our water?

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chemist Wayne Whipple speaks to a crowd gathered in Chicago. (Carla K. Johnson/AP)
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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chemist Wayne Whipple speaks to a crowd gathered in Chicago. (Carla K. Johnson/AP)