The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Burford Resigns
ANNE BURFORD: I resigned because I feel that I had become the issue, and I'm very concerned -- very concerned -- that the agency and the many fine people who work there be allowed to continue to get on with the work that is important to the American people.
JIM LEHRER: Good evening. Anne Burford said her public farewells at an afternoon press conference, defending her record as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and pleading with the press and others to now let EPA get on with its work. Mrs. Burford handed in her resignation to President Reagan last night at the White House. It followed several stormy weeks of allegations about EPA actions, policies and personnel and several stormy days of public talk that only her departure could clear the air. Most key members of Congress involved in investigating various aspects of the EPA expressed happiness today over Mrs. Burford's decision to go, but all said their queries will continue, and the air is still a long way from being clear. Mrs. Burford said she had been working in a government-by-allegation atmosphere in recent weeks. She said any wrongdoing by EPA employees should be quickly established and the wrongdoers put in jail so the rest can be cleared and thus be able to function. Her news conference was 12 minutes long, and we're going to show you that in its entirety tonight. We also have a brief statement from the man who was put in charge of the agency until Mr. Reagan appoints a permanent replacement.And then we're going to talk to the chairman of one of the principal House subcommittees involved in the EPA affair. Robert MacNeil is off; Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in New York. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jim, for many Washington-watchers, it wasn't a question of whether Anne McGill Gorsuch Burford would quit, but rather how long she could take the heat. And given the past history of the combative Mrs. Burford, that was decidedly an open question. Throughout her public career, the 40-year-old former corporate lawyer has provoked strong reaction from critics. The Rocky Mountain News once said in an editorial that she "could kick a bear to death with her bare feet." While serving two terms in the Colorado state legislature, she aligned with a group of conservative lawmakers that opposed such things as toxic waste legislation and pollution control, and were known as "The Crazies." She herself was known as Queen Anne. Still, in her first year, the former Fulbright scholar was voted the outstanding freshman member. In Washington, her aloof management style earned her another nickname, "The Ice Queen." But in the midst of all the turmoil at EPA, she took on still another name, when she married Robert Burford, her former colleague in the Colorado legislature. He is currently head of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management. And it was he who made the introductions at her news conference today.
ROBERT BURFORD: I came along to introduce my wife in case some of you didn't recognize her. We are here today -- as you all know, she submitted her resignation yesterday. We recognize that there's a lot of press interest out there on this subject, and she would like to say a few words to you. Accompanying us is Doug Bennett, who is an attorney that I engaged to represent her in front of the Dingell committee because Justice had said they were not going to represent her. He was hired about little over a week ago, and he is accompanying her at this time, and probably any press inquiries after this should be directed to Doug. Thank you.
ANNE GORSUCH BURFORD, former EPA administrator: Thank you, Bob. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I'd like to just kind of review the bidding. I did submit my resignation to the President of the United States, with regret, last night about 5 o'clock. I came to do a job about 20 months ago, to EPA, to Washington, to serve this President. I'm proud of the job that the agency has performed; many fine civil servants and appointees who came to serve this President. We have a solid record of achievement that will stand the test of time through history in terms of producing environmental results for the American public. We produced guidelines which will control the discharge of toxics into this nation's waters that had never been done before. We've cleared out a backlog in terms of air plans, in terms of RCRA, for the very first time. And I think it's important. I think it's of significance to the American people. We will really be controlling the disposal of hazardous materials in this country's land. It's work product of many, many fine people. And I think that the agency has of late been embroiled in a kind of "who hit John" episode, that I have become the focus of the attention. And it's my intention in terms of resigning to try and get the agency back to work, to let the many fine people -- many, many fine people -- who are over there serving the President to continue to do that job. That's essentially all I have to say. It was getting to a point of difficulty where I couldn't -- I couldn't operate in the manner with which I'm accustomed. Which is with the --
REPORTER: Are you going to cooperate with the committees up on the Hill to put some of these accusations to rest?
Mrs. BURFORD: I will continue to cooperate with Congress in every respect, yes.
REPORTER: Mrs. Burford, there's a question that was asked of General Haig when he resigned as Secretary of State, which I guess is pertinent now. Did you jump or were you pushed?
Mrs. BURFORD: I submitted my resignation to the President yesterday afternoon at 5 o'clock. And I want to say one other thing for the record. That man is a fine man, and he has a real commitment to the environment. And he is right for this country. And I am proud to have worked for him, and I'll be proud to work for him any time in the future. Yes, sir?
REPORTER: Mrs. Burford, somewhere along the line in this controversy, you are quoted as saying that you became the issue as opposed to the issue in the EPA. What I'm wondering is, do you feel in your own mind that you became our victim as well?
Mrs. BURFORD: Well, I have never claimed victimization, and I won't now. I proudly served this President, and I proudly led many fine people who worked hard on his program. And I don't feel that I can continue to do that, and I want to let that agency get back to work.
REPORTER: Mrs. Burford, a follow-up. What do you think of the news media coverage of these events, and did it contribute to your decision to resign?
Mrs. 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.
REPORTER: People on the Hill tell us that as recently as Sunday you had talked to some of the committees about additional arrangements that might get around the executive privilege problem. What was it between Sunday and Wednesday that led you to decide that you should resign?
Mrs. BURFORD: Well, the situation was that on Thursday, a week ago Thursday, I was told that Justice could not represent me in front of the committee. Up until that time I felt that they were representing me in front of those committees. And after that I wasn't real sure who was representing me in front of the committee. So I directed my staff to talk to the committee staff to see if we could resolve the production of documents issue consistent with the President's order. That took place over the weekend. It was not possible for that to occur, at least on a staff-to-staff level. What they produced I did not feel was consistent with the President's previous order. I was led to believe that the White House would continue to represent EPA in dealings with the committee. I don't know that to be a fact.
REPORTER: To the extent that you can, can you describe what it was like at the White House last evening for us?
Mrs. BURFORD: Very cordial. Very cordial, very supportive. This President's a fine man.
REPORTER: May I clarify something, Mrs. Burford? You just said, I think, that you were led to believe that the White House would continue to represent you?
Mrs. BURFORD: That's correct.
REPORTER: In what way? The White House legal department or Fred Fielding or what was that understanding?
Mrs. BURFORD: There was no understanding. I was led to believe that the White House would continue to represent the President's interests before the committees. So it was a very confusing situation.
REPORTER: Are you saying that is one of the reasons why you resigned?
Mrs. BURFORD: No, I resigned because I felt that I had become the issue, and I'm very concerned -- very concerned -- that the agency and the many fine people who work there be allowed continue to get on with the work that is important to the American people.
REPORTER: You've talked about the press coverage in relation to yourself, but how about the press coverage in relation to allegations against the agency? Do you think it's been fair?
Mrs. BURFORD: I'm not going to comment on the fairness. I think -- I personally believe that we shouldn't conduct government by allegation. I firmly believe that if there is anything that's been -- any wrongdoing at the Environmental Protection Agency, that it ought to be thoroughly investigated and people ought to be put in jail or turned free -- one or the other. To the extent that we conduct government by allegation, I think we do ourselves a disservice, and I think we do democracy a disservice. I have firmly said at all stages that if there has been any wrongdoing at the Environmental Protection Agency it ought to be quickly and thoroughly investigated. And people should be either punished or not.
REPORTER: Did anyone at the White House tell you that they would -- that the White House would not represent you in the last day or so? You said you had been led to believe that the White House would.
Mrs. BURFORD: That's a double negative.
REPORTER: I'm sorry?
Mrs. BURFORD: I can't answer a double negative.
REPORTER: Well --
Mrs. BURFORD: Are there any other questions?
REPORTER: Why was Rita Lavelle fired?
Mrs. BURFORD: Gentlemen, that's a personnel matter. It was and will continue to be. It was a decision that I made that I felt that I could no longer have any confidence in her ability to run a very important program for the agency.
REPORTER: Mrs. Burford, do you feel any sense of bitterness at people on White House staff who have been trying to push you out all week?
Mrs. BURFORD: I'm not a bitter person.
REPORTER: Have you recommended anyone for you job?
Mrs. BURFORD: No, I have not recommended anyone for my job.
REPORTER: Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you would like to do over again?
Mrs. BURFORD: There's one --
SPEAKER: -- a honeymoon. I know what she wants.
Mrs. BURFORD: That's right. That's right. And i intend to do that.
REPORTER: Mrs. Burford, one of the criticisms lately has been directed towards the White House attitude towards the environment -- that it's been too much pro-pusiness. Do you feel that that criticism has been unfair, and do you think that there might be a change? Do you regret not spending more time listening to the environmentalist side of -- pro-environmentalist side of the issues you dealt with?
Mrs. BURFORD: To the best of my knowledge and information, we have listened to all sides consistently and have tried to walk a very balanced line in all of our decision-making. That has been true from the beginning. I know that there have been allegations to the contrary, but we have -- at least from my point of view, I have endeavored to walk a very balanced line in areas where there aren't clear-cut answers. You have to make decisions, and there are areas of scientific uncertainty, areas of technical uncertainty. But we've consistently tried to walk a very balanced line. The "allegations" that big business are our constituents has never been my policy. Our constituents are the American people; I think that that's the direction that the agency has followed, and I would hope that they could be able to settle down to business and get on with the very real work that is going on over there.
REPORTER: Are you going to return to the administration, Mrs. Burford?
Mrs. BURFORD: I'd be proud to serve this President in any capacity, and I look forward to serving him in this administration.
REPORTER: Do you have any idea of what kind of a position you might be offered?
Mrs. BURFORD: No, I don't. Those are the President's choices. And obviously I hope he exercises them with the same good judgment that he has in the past.
REPORTER: Mrs. Burford, whose idea was it originally to withhold the documents from Congress -- the enforcement-sensitive documents?
Mrs. BURFORD: The Department of Justice is the counselor to the President, and it is his privilege that I was directed to assert for him, and I have been proud to do that. I strongly believe in executive privilege, but I also strongly believe, to paraphrase the President, that once public confidence is eroded in a program that the privilege should not be asserted.
REPORTER: Would you have given the documents to Congress on your own authority?
Mrs. BURFORD: Gentlemen, I work for the President, and I've been proud to follow his directions, and I will continue to.
REPORTER: Could you follow that other question; I'm not clear. It was not your initiative to ask the Justice Department what they thought about that, to bring the idea up to them and ask them for their opinion on it? Whose idea was it first?
Mrs. BURFORD: The Department of Justice has to be the counselor to the President, to advise him when to assert executive privilege. And to the best of my knowledge, that was the case.
You all, thank you. I'm going to take some time off, take a well-deserved rest with my good spouse.And I appreciate your attention, your being here. And I really appreciate all the fine people that have come to work at EPA -- civil servants and otherwise. And I hope you can let them get back to the business of protecting the environment. It has been going on and it should continue. Thank you all.
HUNTER-GAULT: That muffled aside a few moments ago had to do with the Burfords' plans to get some rest and make up for the honeymoon that they didn't have in February. But getting rest is not the top priority for the new acting head of the agency, John W. Hernandez, Jr. Until now he has been deputy administrator of the EPA.
JOHN W. HERNANCEZ, acting administrator of the EPA: Mrs. Burford has been a brilliant and dedicated administrator. She has performed masterfully in a dedicated way under adverse conditions. Her departure is a loss to the agency and to the citizens of our country. It should come as no surprise to anyone that my number-one priority is to get the agency back to work. As I have indicated, EPA has a competent, dedicated staff, and my admiration for their performance during these troubled times is only exceeded by my confidence that they will rise to demands of the months to come. I intend to begin the task of restoring the public's faith in what I have always maintained is an exceptional agency. The American people have placed a trust in our hands of protecting their health and the quality of the environment that we share. I believe that this trust is well placed, and that we are in fact faithfully carrying out their mandate.
LEHRER: The beginning of the end for Anne Burford really began last fall when an House investigation and oversight subcommittee subpoenaed some EPA documents.Her refusal to hand them over on orders from the White House led to Mrs. Burford, then Mrs. Gorsuch, being cited for contempt of Congress and to a host of other congressional and FBI investigations. The chairman of the subcommittee which started it all is Congressman Elliott Levitas, Democrat of Georgia. Congressman, do you feel any pleasure over Mrs. Burford's resigning?
Rep. ELLIOTT LEVITAS: Clearly not. I have never had this as a personal objective. I've had very good relationships with Mrs. Burford, and I get no pleasure in this at all. I've never called for her resignation; I've never suggested she should be fired. And I think on one point she is totally wrong in her press conference. She is not the issue. That has never been the issue. It has not been Anne Gorsuch or Anne Burford. It's been the policies of the Environmental Protection Agency as directed by this administration.
LEHRER: She said that she was not claiming victimization, and yet the President in his statement last night, on accepting her resignation, said that she was in fact a victim of innuendo. Do you agree with that?
Rep. LEVITAS: No, I don't think Mrs. Burford is a victim of innuendo. 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 has dealt very unkindly with Mrs. Burford. They were the ones who ordered her not to turn over these documents. An assistant attorney general sat right next to her in my committee hearing and advised her not to turn over the documents, and then when the heat got put on, they backed off.
LEHRER: What happens now, Congressman? The whole -- if she said it once, she said it, it seemed like, 100 times in that 12-minute thing."I want the agency to be able to get on with its work." Is that going to happen now?
Rep. LEVITAS: Well, I would hope the agency will begin to get on with the work of protecting the environment and protecting our health in this country.I hope that now we're getting the documents, they will not have to spend a lot of time trying to conceal the documents or edit portions out, and so they won't have that workload.But the investigations that were begun by my subcommittee early in 1982, by other subcommittees, I am convinced those investigations must go on. What we are interested in is getting the facts out on the table for the American people.
LEHRER: What specifically is it that you're trying to find -- that your subcommittee is trying to find out?
Rep. LEVITAS: We're trying to find out why the Superfund program, which was designed by Congress to clean up these very dangerous, hazardous waste sites, has not been doing the job. We had testimony before our subcommittee by two top officials in the agency that said there are between 14 and 20 thousand of these sites.They have a list of 418. They told us that that priority list of 418 would not be cleaned up by the end of this century. What about the other thousands of sites? What about the public health?
LEHRER: So your concern is more of a policy question than it is -- you're not looking for criminal wrongdoing; you're not suggesting that there is any?
Rep. LEVITAS: We're not looking for criminal wrongdoing. We have in the course of our investigation come across information that not only indicates but pretty clearly establishes political considerations having been taken into account with respect to the Superfund. We are looking at some other allegations, but that's not the thrust of our concern. The great scandal here is the fact that we've got these poisonous, hazardous waste dumps and the program is not cleaning them up.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what's the most damaging evidence in that regard that you've come across, Congressman?
Rep. LEVITAS: Well, to me the most damaging evidence that I have heard so far is the memorandum that was prepared for Rita Lavelle.
HUNTER-GAULT: Rita Lavelle is the EPA official who was fired earlier by the President.
Rep. LEVITAS: That's correct. She was in charge of the Superfund program, and someone prepared a memorandum for her listing her achievements in this program. Every achievement was identified as being one approved of by the industry or by the regulated community. The word public or the words public health or the word environment doesn't appear in that entire memorandum. And that is the reason, in my judgment, the entire concept, philosophy and policy of this administration in the Environmental Protection Agency has failed, and it doesn't make any difference who they put in to replace Mrs. Burford until that policy changes.
HUNTER-GAULT: And, as Jim just asked you, criminality is not an issue here? It's failure to execute the mandate of the agency. Is that --
Rep. LEVITAS: Well, yes, that's the major thrust of our investigation. But I think it's criminal to have these thousands of hazardous waste dumps still polluting our waters into the next century. And in the course of our investigation, we are looking at information which would itself be criminal, whether it's political manipulation, whether it's favoritism, the destruction of documents which were being sought by my subcommittee. We're looking at those things, but they sort of are like a bunch of jackrabbits that keep jumping up rather than the main thrust, which is to find out why this vital program for the public health hasn't been properly executed and implemented by this administration.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you just heard Mrs. Burford in the news conference say that the wrongdoers should be established quickly and that they should either be put in jail or, you know, cleared or whatever. Do you expect that this can be done quickly, given the nature of the investigation? When yours started in early 1982 --
Rep. LEVITAS: Well, I think it's going to take some time. We now have the documents that -- most of the documents we're looking for. That's going to enable us to move forward with a great deal of expedition. But there are many characters involved. There are many people. There are many sites. And my guess is we're looking at at least two or three more months before we are going to get into the heart and soul of this whole investigation.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We have to leave it there.
LEHRER: Congressman, thank you very much. Good night, Charlayne.
HUNTER-GAULT: Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: We'll see you tomorrow night. I'm Jim Lehrer; thank you and good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Burford Resigns
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- NewsHour Productions
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- National Records and Archives Administration (Washington, District of Columbia)
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- Episode Description
- This episode's headline: Burford Resigns. The guests include Rep. ELLIOTT LEVITAS, Democrat, Georgia. Byline: In New York: CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Correspondent; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; LEWIS SILVERMAN, DAN WERNER, Producers; MAURA LERNER, ANNETTE MILLER, Reporters
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Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
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Identifier: 97145 (NARA catalog identifier)
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Burford Resigns,” 1983-03-10, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 27, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-kd1qf8k944.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Burford Resigns.” 1983-03-10. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 27, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-kd1qf8k944>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Burford Resigns. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-kd1qf8k944