GAO to sue for Cheney energy data

White House refuses to detail meetings with Enron, others

Public `entitled to know'

Administration says no need to negotiate a presidential right

January 31, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The General Accounting Office said yesterday that it would take the White House to court to try to force it to disclose information about meetings that Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force held with industry executives.

It would mark the first time in the 80-year history of the GAO - the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress - that it has sued the executive branch. The squabble will test the right of a White House to hold closed policy meetings. And it will likely further spotlight the scandal over the collapse of Enron Corp., which has become a distraction for President Bush because of his ties to the company.

Some Democrats have charged that executives from Enron and other corporations all but wrote the president's energy proposals, some of which would directly benefit their industry. Enron filed for bankruptcy protection last month, and employees and shareholders lost billions of dollars.

In a letter to congressional leaders yesterday, David M. Walker, who heads the GAO, said the White House has rebuffed him since last summer. That was when the GAO, at the request of Democrats, first demanded information about conversations between energy executives and Cheney's task force, which was drafting the administration's energy policy.

"Congress has a right to the information," Walker said in the letter. "Energy policy is an important economic and environmental matter," he said, that "affects the lives of each and every American."

The White House's denial of the request, Walker said, "serves to undercut the important principles of transparency and accountability in government."

Walker, who is the comptroller general of the United States, said he plans to file suit in U.S. District Court in Washington within two or three weeks.

Bush and Cheney have argued that they, along with their advisers, need to keep confidential the advice they receive from citizens as they draft policy and develop positions on issues. It is a right, they say, that every member of Congress enjoys and one that is needed to ensure that advice is given freely.

`The principles at stake'

White House officials said yesterday that they viewed the GAO's impending lawsuit as an opportunity to solidify an important right for future presidents.

"The president believes firmly in the principles at stake," said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman. "We'll see the GAO in court."

On Monday Bush called the GAO's demand "an encroachment on the executive branch's ability to do business."

`No other choice'

Democratic lawmakers applauded the GAO's announcement that it would sue, which has been expected for several days.

"The vice president has left the GAO no other choice," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee and one of the lawmakers who began pressing the GAO to investigate the meetings. Waxman and others said they feared that the administration had not given adequate consideration to the advice of groups outside the energy industry.

"I can't understand why the vice president is stonewalling when other administrations have provided other Congresses with this sort of information," Waxman said.

Waxman added that although he agreed that advice the president and vice president receive from administration officials should be protected, "the recommendations they get from lobbyists and special interests who have given them campaign contributions by its nature is something that the American people are entitled to know about."

Republican reaction

Some Republican lawmakers have said they want to look into whether they have the power to block the GAO's lawsuit.

"It is the height of hypocrisy for Congress to demand information it would never turn over itself," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

But Rep. Doug Ose of California sided with the GAO.

"Let's just get it out in the open," Ose said. "Give people the information and then move on."

Developing the positions

After the Cheney task force had collected recommendations, it proposed a wide-ranging energy policy that called for, among other things, the construction of new power plants and the opening of environmentally sensitive lands to oil and gas drilling, both of which the energy industry has favored.

Democrats noted that Bush's presidential campaign had been heavily funded by the industry, and they raised questions about the influence that private executives had exerted over the energy policy.

The White House has acknowledged that, in crafting its policy, it sought the advice of energy officials. And the White House has disclosed that Cheney's task force met six times with Enron officials.

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