The Newlywed Burfords Won't Top D.c.'s Social 'a' List—they're Congress' Most Wanted Couple
03/07/1983 at 01:00 AM EST
Six congressional committees were vying for her bureaucratic scalp. The Justice Department and the Congress had spent months jousting in court over whether she should be jailed for contempt. Her top aide had just been fired, amid charges of criminal acts in the administration of her agency's $1.6 billion "Superfund" to clean up toxic wastes. But Environmental Protection Agency head Anne Gorsuch, 40, was determined to set aside at least one day last week as her own. She spent it getting married to fellow Coloradan Robert Burford, 60, the director of the Federal Bureau of Land Management. It was a traditional wedding. Gorsuch announced that she would take her new husband's name, old pal James Watt (Robert Burford's boss) was best man at the civil ceremony, and 400 of the couple's friends joined in a champagne celebration afterward at Georgetown's tony Four Seasons Hotel. The watchword of the day was definitely "What, me worry?" As Robert explained: "We never know what's going to happen next in her job or mine—who's going to be testifying up on the Hill or who's going to be sued."
Indeed, while Robert shares the heat for friend Watt's contentious stewardship of the Interior Department, the new Mrs. Burford has engendered one of the decade's nastiest contretemps between the executive and legislative branches by refusing to give Congress hundreds of the 787,000 EPA documents it had subpoenaed. A compromise may have settled that squabble now. But Mrs. Burford by any other name is the same Anne Gorsuch who last month engineered the dismissal of one of her key administrators, Rita Lavelle; and subsequently she asked the Justice Department to investigate Lavelle. Critics have charged that Lavelle held suspicious meetings with the very companies that were liable for cleanup settlements. They also claim that many records, which might indicate wrongdoing by the EPA, have since been destroyed—and that the $3.7 billion agency, which has 9,262 employees, is a nest of intrigue. Some members of Congress refuse to believe that Lavelle could have held frequent meetings with polluters without her boss's knowledge. Says Democratic Congressman Elliott Levitas of Georgia skeptically: "Lavelle was operating the EPA's most important program in Washington—she wasn't operating in El Salvador."
Among environmentalists, Anne Burford has long been about as popular as Medea. In two terms in the Colorado legislature (1977-80) she was one of a group dubbed the "crazies" for their obstinate opposition to any pro-environment legislation. During that service, Gorsuch met Burford, who later became the moderate Republican Speaker of the Colorado House, and a professional liaison evolved into a romantic one. Both were divorced from their spouses (he has four children by his first wife, she has three by her ex-husband, a prominent Denver lawyer). They came to Washington and the Reagan Administration sponsored by their mentor, beer baron Joseph Coors. Today they share a suburban Alexandria, Va. home with her children, Neil, 15, Stephanie, 13, and J.J., 9.
Anne's reputation preceded her to the capital—and after being confirmed in her Cabinet-level post in May 1981, she quickly set to work turning her distrust of environmentalists into public policy. She has laid plans to cut the EPA staff by 23 percent and the budget by 30 percent in three years. According to critic William Drayton, an ex-EPA topsider now running a watchdog group called Save EPA, her changes went beyond Reagan-inspired belt tightening. "It's true that she was doing the President's job at EPA," he says, "but the paranoia, corruption and nastiness were all her contribution."
Although her management of EPA has been questioned, no one has charged Anne Burford with wrongdoing—and she says she is confident that nobody will. "I feel neither embattled nor beleaguered," she declares. Still, her agency, once among the most respected in the federal government, is now being vilified as the home of "Sewergate"—and the scandal has plainly shaken the imperturbable cool which earned Burford the nickname "Ice Queen" within the agency. She has banned photographers from interviews because too many of their published pictures proved unflattering. She complains that television crews wait all day to shoot footage of her exiting the building—"as if I were some kind of courthouse criminal." The TV crews are also staking out her home. Burford has met that imposition with rare humor: "Twice I've gone out to the front porch in my bathrobe to pick up the morning paper and found a camera crew across the street. I'm going to have to get a new wardrobe of bathrobes."
Still drawing heavy fire from Congress, Burford passed up a honeymoon to go back to the job of defending herself. But her greatest present may have come three days before her wedding, when President Reagan called her in for a briefing on the EPA imbroglio. After a 15-minute meeting, she emerged from the Oval Office smiling—assured, insiders say, that she is still the President's woman.