Cheney's secrets could taint presidency

Documents: The vice president risks dragging Enron further through the White House door.

January 29, 2002

VICE PRESIDENT Dick Cheney isn't doing his boss any favors these days. But he's certainly raising the volume on questions about who he has done favors for.

Even before the spectacular collapse of Enron Corporation and the allegations of scandal that followed, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, was looking into whether corporate campaign contributions had unduly influenced the development of national energy policy.

Mr. Cheney was chairman of the group formulating the policy, and he or his staff met with Enron officials at least five times.

Now, Comptroller General David Walker, head of the GAO, wants to see the records of those meetings.

Clearly, whether Mr. Cheney allowed executives from Enron, a major political donor, to essentially provide a blueprint for the administration's energy policy is a separate issue from the company's present legal and financial troubles.

But Mr. Cheney's refusal to turn over the documents requested by the GAO is doing more to link George W. Bush's White House with Enron's scandal than any evidence so far has succeeding in doing. He's playing a dangerous game, and the president is unwise to follow his lead.

This should be a particularly sensitive issue for the president in the wake of a nationwide poll showing that most Americans think the Bush administration is hiding something or lying about its dealings with Enron. Now comes the vice president posturing about his right to keep secret a half-dozen meetings with representatives of the fallen energy trading giant. Thanks a lot, Dick.

But Mr. Cheney's reason for refusing to cooperate is more than just politically troubling - it's outrageous.

He's claiming presidential privilege. He told a network news program Sunday that he has seen "an erosion of the powers and ability of the president of the United States to do his job" because previous presidents have caved in to demands from Congress for documents and records.

"We are weaker today as an institution" because of presidential compromises over the last 30 or 35 years, he said.

Ah yes, 30 to 35 years. That would mean the last president who did the job right was - Richard Nixon. The only president forced to resign from office, taken down as much by hubris as by the allegations of criminal behavior.

Hubris seems not to be a failing of President Bush, but he should beware: Dick Cheney may well have enough for two.

Mr. Cheney's pleas for concealment also ring hollow coming a scant two years after his party conducted an exhaustive exposM-i of Bill Clinton's sex life - which had nothing to do with national policy - before Congress.

Mr. Walker, the comptroller general, is mulling plans to take Mr. Cheney to court to force him to turn over the records.

If that fails, congressional committees investigating the conflict-of-interest allegations could subpoena them.

Would the nation be shocked to find that a committee of politicians shaping energy policy had been influenced by a deep-pockets energy company? Probably not, but that doesn't make it right.

However, it's altogether possible that the harm to the presidency may well come less from the reality of the conflict than from the vehement attempts to keep the evidence under wraps.

Mr. Cheney should be able to relate to that; something similar happened, oh, about 30 years ago.

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