GAO sues Cheney for list

Office seeks names of energy executives at policy meetings

Step taken `reluctantly'

White House welcomes action, says it will prevail


WASHINGTON - The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, sued Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday to try to force the White House to reveal the identities of energy industry executives who helped the administration develop a national energy policy last year.

It was the first time in the GAO's 80-year history that the agency had filed suit against a member of the executive branch for failing to turn over records to Congress.

The lawsuit sets up a legal showdown between the accounting office, which is the investigative agency of Congress, and the White House over access to records of the national energy task force, of which Cheney was chairman.

Congressional investigators are trying to determine whether executives from corporations that had contributed to President Bush's 2000 campaign, including Enron Corp., helped shape the administration's national energy policy.

"We take this step reluctantly," David M. Walker, the comptroller general of the United States and director of the accounting office, said in a statement. "Nevertheless, given GAO's responsibility to Congress and the American people, we have no other choice."

The congressional accounting office is seeking lists of people present at each meeting last year of the energy task force. It also seeks lists of people that each member of the task force met with, including the date, subject and location of each meeting. Walker has described it as "who met with whom, when and about what."

The 25-page lawsuit, filed in federal district court here, names only Cheney as a defendant, both in his capacity as vice president and as chairman of the energy task force. In an interview Thursday, Cheney said he believed strongly that the disclosure of the records would hamper the executive branch's ability to solicit the advice of outside experts.

"If you're a student of politics and the presidency, it's a very important issue," Cheney said. "It ought to be resolved in a court, unless you're willing to compromise on a basic fundamental principle, which we're not."

Yesterday, senior administration officials said they welcomed the lawsuit and expressed confidence the White House would prevail.

"There is an important principle here," Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, said. "We view this as a matter of statutory construction: Does the GAO have the authority under the governing statutes to conduct this kind of investigation of the vice president and his advisers? We do not believe the statute provides that kind of authority."

The White House officials will be represented in court by Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, who supervises government appellate work, and by Associate Attorney General Robert D. McCallum Jr., who is in charge of the Justice Department's civil division.

The GAO has retained the Washington law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood to handle its case.

Since last May, top administration officials have repeatedly declined to turn over the documents. After Enron filed for bankruptcy protection Dec. 2, the issue became politically perilous, and even some Republicans on Capitol Hill urged the White House to yield to the GAO. But Bush and Cheney refused, saying that the confidentiality of executive branch discussions was worth fighting for.

The nine-month dispute over access to the documents has made it much more difficult for the White House to distance itself from the collapse of Enron, one of Bush's major political benefactors. Enron executives met with Cheney and other task force members six times last year.

From February to May last year, Cheney and the task force staff held meetings with as many as 400 people from 150 corporations, trade associations, labor unions and environmental groups, to devise a new energy policy for the nation.

Congressional Democrats and environmental groups complained at the time that the environmental groups were largely shut out of the process. The task force report recommended additional oil and gas drilling and made note of the nation's need to build 1,300 to 1,900 new electric plants to meet the projected demand over the next 20 years.

In yesterday's suit, the GAO's lawyers wrote that for decades the executive branch "has complied with countless GAO requests for information," even after disputes about the scope of some requests. "However," the lawsuit states, "until the instant dispute, accommodations and compromises have generally been reached, and GAO has never been forced to file suit to obtain access to records."

The lawsuit says that Walker had repeatedly sought to strike a compromise with the administration, but he had been rebuffed at every turn.

"Despite its efforts to reach a reasonable accommodation, GAO has been denied access to information it has a statutory right to obtain," the lawsuit says.

A settlement of the lawsuit is highly unlikely, a senior administration official said yesterday.

At issue is the law that gives the comptroller general the powers to "investigate all matters related to the receipt, disbursement and use of public money."

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