GAO chief shows he won't back down

Walker leads suit to force White House for energy data

February 09, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The phrase "swashbuckling accountant" may sound like an oxymoron. But in the case of David M. Walker, it might well apply.

A lanky Southerner who heads the General Accounting Office, Walker is preparing to sue the White House to try to force it to disclose details of contacts between business executives and Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. The White House has denounced the lawsuit as a threat to an administration's ability to hold private policy meetings.

In an interview with reporters yesterday, the 50-year-old Walker stated again and again that he believes his cause is just, that his adversaries ought to back off and that if he goes to court, he will win.

"I'm not going to sit here and allow our agency to be stonewalled," he said, pinstripes blazing, of his quest for information he claims the White House is keeping secret illegally. "What we're asking for is very reasoned and reasonable."

Later, he was more bluntly: "We're not the problem here."

The lawsuit, which could be filed before the end of the month, would mark the first time in its 81 years that the GAO has taken the executive branch to court. And it is the first time that the head of that agency - a post held by a political appointee who usually remains all but anonymous during a 15-year term - has taken a personal role in such a high-stakes battle.

Walker, who is comptroller general of the United States, said he does not welcome the attention. Had Congress not prodded him, he said, he would not have pursued this case. But Walker also argues that to drop the case would threaten the ability of his agency, which serves as the investigative arm of Congress, to scrutinize future administrations.

"I've got a job to do," he said, "and I'm going to do it."

Unlike others in this dispute, Walker is bipartisan creature who defies easy political labels. A registered Democrat in his 20s, he later switched to the Republican Party and finally became an independent before taking this job.

He was appointed to the GAO post by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, at the behest of a bipartisan panel of Congress. Earlier, he served as a political appointee under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush and was a delegate to the 1980 Republican National convention.

Walker seems keenly aware that a White House fight is not for the weak-kneed. He said he had to start his own public-relations campaign to combat what he calls White House exaggerations of the scope of his inquiry, a charge the White House denies.

In his complaint, Walker asks the task force to disclose which executives met with whom at the White House, when they did it, what they talked about and how much it cost. Democrats want to look into whether Enron and other company executives exerted undue influence on energy task force recommendations.

Walker was appointed to his job in 1998 from a top post at the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, which is now embroiled in the Enron scandal. He has recused himself from any federal investigations regarding Andersen.

The Washington job puts Walker squarely in the middle of clashing partisan agendas. As he goes toe-to-toe with Cheney, Walker scarcely hides his distaste for a case that has made him a darling among Democrats.

"I would not have originated this on my own, all right?" he said, a tad defensively, noting that his inquiry predated the Enron uproar in Washington. Now, in light of the attention this dispute has received, he observed, "If I said, `Absolutely, positively no, we're not going to do any work in this area,' don't you think people would view that as being highly partisan?"

The GAO isn't known for hogging the spotlight, but rather for churning out dry reports on government costs. With Walker, it inherits a government accountant with a little flash.

Walker took a pay cut for the $150,000-a-year government job, but still bought a Porsche Boxster for his wife, Mary, a former flight attendant. He zooms around in a Jaguar with "CG GAO" - the acronym of his title and agency - on his license plates.

"I bought it used," Walker noted.

Friends remember Walker as a conservative young man who married his wife as a college sophomore and whose patriotic streak had him wearing American flag lapel pins long before the Sept. 11 attacks made the accessory fashionable. An American flag flies outside his home in Mount Vernon, Va., and used to hang from a 6-foot pole inside his Arthur Andersen office.

A native of Birmingham, Ala., who spent much of his youth in Florida, Walker dreamt of training as a fighter pilot and becoming a career Marine Corps officer. He was accepted to the Naval Academy, but lost almost all his hearing in his left ear while traveling in a depressurized plane to his Navy physical, and was rejected.

Heartbroken, Walker instead attended Jacksonville University in Florida, majoring in accounting, and then going on to work in the private sector. He and his wife have two grown children.

Because of his political activities in the past, Walker has come to know the Bush family. And he has a ready-made ice-breaker: Walker, of course, is a family name in the Bush line - the "W" in George W.

The president, while still governor of Texas, once tried to figure out if they were related and concluded, "Baldness doesn't run in my family." The balding CPA later confirmed that he and the president are not family.

It is not likely that Walker and Bush will be joshing like this again anytime soon. Walker has not indicated he will back down from his lawsuit. If anything, with each public comment he sounds more convinced of the strength of his case.

"You've got a guy who is very principled, who's an auditor, who wants to get to the bottom of things," said Ian Dingwall, an old friend of Walker's and the chief accountant at the federal Pension and Welfare Benefit Administration. "Anybody who gets in the way of that, whoever they are, is not going to fare too well in his eyes."

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