Secrecy fight puts Bush team in bad light

March 29, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Up to now, cheerleaders for the Bush administration have pretty effectively detoured accusations of involvement in the Enron fiasco by saying it's a corporate scandal, not a political one.

They have pointed to evidence that President Bush's Houston pal, Kenneth Lay, and other Enron officials came up empty-handed in bids for special help during the energy giant's free fall to collapse.

For months, Democratic critics were frustrated in their efforts to find a fly in the soup in the administration's unwillingness to come clean about who attended private meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney's task force formulating the Bush energy policy in its first days. But with lawsuits breathing down Mr. Cheney's neck and that of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, the White House has responded to one court order with partial disclosure of thousands of pages of Energy Department documents on the meetings.

But thousands more were not released, and those that were made public were heavily deleted. So the watchdog group involved, Judicial Watch, will be going back to court for more disclosure.

Also pending is the General Account Office suit for the same information from Mr. Cheney, which the administration is bucking on grounds that the vice president as a constitutional officer is not subject to the GAO's reach.

So far, the administration has not invoked executive privilege in the matter, but the practical effect is the same.

The released papers show Mr. Abraham met exclusively with energy industry officials to the exclusion of environmental interests during most of the policymaking period and took information and views from the excluded groups, mostly in printed form, only after their noisy protests. The administration policy, when released, was overwhelmingly pro-industry.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who is becoming as adept at sarcasm as he is hapless at informing, dismissed the disclosures by saying: "News flash: It's no surprise to anybody that the secretary of energy meets with energy-related groups."

Indeed, it is no surprise. But you have to wonder why the administration was willing to be dragged into court and sued by a government agency to get the information and invite all the inferences and bad publicity in the process.

Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, Washington's most prominent and respected nonpartisan watchdog of ethical conduct and influence peddling in the federal government, agrees that it's commonplace for administrations to meet with those who support their positions. Labor unions, he points out, have similar ready access to Democratic administrations.

It's another thing, however, when those granted access have been among the administration's most generous campaign contributors, he says.

The latest disclosures, says Steve Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics, is "further evidence that campaign contributions get you through the door."

The additional fact that the president and vice president come from the oil industry themselves and have wide friendships with its leaders, Mr. Lewis says, makes their stonewalling "extraordinary, and stupid" if indeed they have nothing to hide. Because of these strong connections, he says, "they have an additional burden not to be seen as toadies to the industry."

Dragging out the controversy, he says, even now, when a court has forced the release of thousands of documents, simply keeps the negative story alive and amplifies it.

"It's almost Exhibit A of how not to handle a political situation," which the energy task force secrecy has now become, Mr. Lewis says.

Larry Klayman, chairman of Judicial Watch, which sued the Energy Department for disclosure of its policymaking meetings, agrees that the administration "is playing a high-risk game by creating inferences that it has done something wrong."

Continued administration secrecy, stalling and obstruction risk seriously undermining the argument that the energy scandal is strictly a financial, corporate problem, not a political one.

If the president doesn't want the financial and corporate woes of his buddies in the industry to become his own political dilemma, he would be wise to let the light shine on what he insists he has no need to hide.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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