Federal agencies bicker over anthrax records

Capitol Police Board wants the EPA's files on $13 million Hart cleanup

January 25, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - An obscure but powerful arm of Congress is trying to take custody of all government records related to the anthrax attack on Capitol Hill, a move that could make it more difficult to get a public accounting of the cost of cleaning up the Hart Senate Office Building.

But officials of the Environmental Protection Agency, which helped direct the cleanup effort, balked this week at surrendering their files.

If strictly followed, an order issued by the U.S. Capitol Police Board would require federal agencies such as the EPA to destroy all copies of documents relating to the anthrax incident at the Capitol complex.

The EPA was brought in by Congress to handle the decontamination effort, which took more than three months and is estimated to have cost more than $13.4 million. The operation was under the overall direction of the three-member police board, which contends that it should gain exclusive control of the documents.

Congressional officials say the cleanup was a legislative branch project, even though the work was delegated to executive branch agencies such as the EPA. The Hart building, which was closed after the Oct. 15 incident, reopened this week.

A Capitol Police spokesman said the document sweep was motivated by security concerns. He said it was already under way when Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, began publicly questioning the cost of the cleanup and demanding detailed information from the EPA.

Grassley, who has expressed concern about the "fiscal integrity" of the cleanup, has asked the EPA to provide information by today on the private contractors hired for the project and its funding.

Lt. Dan Nichols, a Capitol Police spokesman, said "the negotiations" with the EPA about turning over its documents had "just started" Wednesday and were continuing in an attempt to "work these issues out."

EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said last night that the agency is "working through these issues. We're very confident we're going to be able to sort out the logistics."

Some EPA lawyers are said to regard the matter as a separation of powers issue and have consulted the Justice Department on whether they must comply.

If the police board obtains control of all records, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, would have the final say over whether to release details about the incident and the cleanup.

That information might be disclosed more freely if the documents remain with the 18 agencies involved in the operation, congressional aides say.

Under the police board's order, dated Nov. 20, all records relating to the anthrax threat on Capitol Hill "shall be maintained exclusively" by Capitol Police. The order covers "all records, documents, data, materials and information," including e-mail, according to a copy of the one-page document obtained by The Sun.

In a statement last night, Grassley said he looks forward to "learning more about why the Capitol Police Board is seeking control of all documents related to the Hart building cleanup."

"If the Capitol Police Board is trying to protect against security threats, I appreciate that," he said. "However, the taxpayers have a right to information on the cleanup cost. They're footing the bill, after all."

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