DOE Ordered to Release Energy Documents

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, February 28, 2002 (ENS) - The Department of Energy has been ordered by a federal court to release 7,584 pages of documents related to meetings between Vice President Richard Cheney's national energy task force and representatives from the energy industry. The ruling is a victory for the environmental group that sued for access to the records, and could foretell similar success in a lawsuit filed last week by the investigative arm of Congress.

Abraham

All documents related to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's involvement with the White House energy task force must be released to the NRDC (Photo courtesy DOE)
If the government fails to release the documents as ordered, administration officials can be held in contempt of court and risk going to jail.

On Wednesday, a federal district court notified the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that it has ordered the Department of Energy (DOE) to release thousands of pages of documents related to Cheney's energy task force. The NRDC called the court opinion, which came in response to an NRDC lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a "stinging condemnation" of the agency's refusal to obey the law.

"Justice was finally served," said NRDC senior attorney Sharon Buccino. "By forcing the Department of Energy to quit its stonewalling, the court has protected the public's fundamental right to know what its government is doing."

The task force information, she added, is directly relevant to the current energy debate in Congress.

The NRDC originally asked the agency last April for basic information about its role in the Cheney task force, called the National Energy Policy Development Group, which was commissioned by President George W. Bush in January 2001. The DOE was the lead agency working with the task force to develop the president's policy.

Cheney

Vice President Richard Cheney headed the National Energy Policy Development Group (Photo courtesy the White House)
In her opinion, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler described DOE as "woefully tardy," and called its initial response to NRDC "virtually meaningless." She also observed that the agency had "no legal, or practical, justification for working at a glacial pace" to fulfill NRDC's request, noting that "the material which [NRDC] seeks is of extraordinary public interest."

"It is very hard to discern from the declaration of the Department's FOIA Officer what in the world Department personnel were doing from July 2001 through December 2001 when they were conducting 'periodic' reviews of the 2,149 documents (comprising 7,584 pages) deemed responsive to the request," added Kessler.

On January 24, in a cryptic legal statement, the DOE denied that its officials have refused to disclose names of outside interests working with the task force - while at the same time refusing to provide that information. The agency did not claim executive privilege in response to the lawsuit, or specify any legal justification for withholding the information.

Judge Kessler directed the government to turn over the "vast majority" of the documents requested by NRDC by March 25, 2002. She called it "distressing" that the NRDC is not the only entity seeking the information - others include news organizations and members of Congress.

"DOE concedes that it has at least 11 other similar FOIA requests seeking access to documents relating to the work of the Energy Task Force, and it would appear that none of those other requests have been responded to," she wrote in her decision.

Bush

President Bush has supported Cheney's decision to withhold the energy task force documents (Photo courtesy The White House)
The DOE said it would comply with the judge's order. The NRDC says it will publicly release all the documents it receives, including the names of participants, dates of meetings, and the topics discussed.

That information will reveal which energy companies or industry lobbyists may have influenced the work that DOE staff did on the Bush-Cheney energy plan. The plan, unveiled on May 17, 2001, included more than $34 billion in subsidies for energy industries, primarily oil and gas, coal and nuclear power.

"An honest government requires transparency," said Buccino. "Unfortunately, it took a court order to force open a door that this administration fought hard to keep closed. After being shut out of the process for nearly a year, the public will finally get to see if the administration acted on behalf of the public interest in formulating its energy plan, or for the exclusive benefit of a few industry friends like Enron and other big energy companies."

Buccino referred to at least six known meetings between Vice President Cheney and top officials from the now bankrupt Enron.

Concerns over the administration's ties to Enron, and other major energy companies, prompted the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, to sue Vice President Cheney to release the names of all attendees of the energy task force's meetings. The filing represented the first lawsuit in the GAO's 80 year history directed against a member of the executive branch over access to records.

Walker

David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, has filed a historic lawsuit against the Vice President's office (Photo courtesy GAO)
"We take this step reluctantly," said David Walker, comptroller general of the United States and director of the GAO. "Nevertheless, given G.A.O.'s responsibility to Congress and the American people, we have no other choice."

At the request of two Democratic Representatives - Henry Waxman of California and John Dingell of Michigan - the GAO asked Cheney's office for the documents in April 2001. At first, the GAO requested all minutes and records of the task force, which the White House refused to release on the grounds that such a broad request lay outside the agency's authority.

In August, the GAO revised its request to cover only the dates, locations and subjects of task force meetings, as well as the names of all attendees. The agency argues that "allowing the Vice President to withhold basic factual information also would violate the principles of transparency and accountability that are essential elements of a democracy."

"Our repeated attempts to reach a reasonable accommodation on this matter have not been successful," Walker said in a statement last week. "Now that the matter has been submitted to the judicial branch, we are hopeful that the litigation will be resolved expeditiously."

The files ordered released to the NRDC may not include all the details sought by the GAO, as the documents requested by the NRDC come from the Energy Department - not the Vice President's office. However, as Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham believed to have attended most of the meetings with energy industry executives, a great deal of overlap with the GAO request is expected.