GAO Will Sue Bush Administration for Documents

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 31, 2002 (ENS) - The General Accounting Office plans to file suit against the Bush administration within weeks, seeking the release of documents relating to closed door meetings between Vice President Richard Cheney and energy industry officials. The case is viewed as a crucial test of the president's power to protect records of private meetings with powerful and influential commercial interests.

Walker

David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, plans a historic lawsuit against the Vice President's office (Photo courtesy GAO)
Since April 2001, the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, has been working on behalf of Congress to obtain the records of Cheney's energy task force meetings, which were instrumental in shaping President George W. Bush's national energy plan.

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.

In a letter to the White House and Congress released Wednesday, Comptroller General David Walker informed the administration that four separate Senate committees and subcommittees are now seeking the same information originally requested last year by two House committee chairs.

"We would have strongly preferred to avoid litigation in connection with this matter," Walker wrote, "but given the request by the four Senate committee and subcommittee chairmen, our rights to this information and the important principles and precedents involved, GAO will take the steps necessary to file suit in United States District Court in order to obtain, from the Chair of the NEPDG, the information outlined in our August 17, 2001, report."

"This will be the first time that GAO has filed suit to enforce our access rights against a federal official," added Walker. "We hope it is the last time that we will have to do so."

The GAO's demands have taken on added urgency since the collapse of energy giant Enron. Congressional investigators have been told that the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG) had six meetings with the now bankrupt Enron, but Cheney's office has refused to release any additional details.

"Energy policy is an important economic and environmental matter with significant domestic and international implications," wrote Walker. "How it is formulated has understandably been a longstanding interest of the Congress. In addition, the recent bankruptcy of Enron has served to increase congressional interest in energy policy, in general, and NEPDG activities, in particular."

Cheney

Vice President Richard Cheney headed the National Energy Policy Development Group (Photo courtesy the White House)
Information regarding which industry representatives had a hand in shaping the national energy policy will help Congress in its deliberations over a national energy bill, Walker noted. A report released today by the Green Scissors Campaign warns that the energy bill crafted by the House (HR 4) could double government subsidies to oil, coal and nuclear power industries.

"The formulation and oversight of energy policy and the investigation of Enron related activities represent important institutional prerogatives of the Congress," Walker added, defending the GAO's authority to request the information.

The White House has pledged to fight the GAO lawsuit and keep the task force documents secret. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters that President Bush "believes very strongly that this White House and all future White Houses should have a right to receive the advice and the thoughts of citizens and to do so without those thoughts being turned into virtual news releases."

"The president will strongly promote that right, and fight for that right in court, and the White House expects to prevail," Fleischer noted.

"The White House expects to win because our case is strong in law, it's strong in policy and it's strong in principle," Fleischer said later. "Conversely, we do not believe the GAO has a strong case to make, either in law, policy or principle."

Bush

President Bush supports Cheney's decision to withhold the energy task force documents (Photo courtesy The White House)
On Monday, President Bush said that if the GAO prevails, the ruling could prevent the president from holding unbiased consultations with industry representatives.

"I view the GAO like the vice president does - it's an encroachment on the executive branch's ability to conduct business," Bush said.

In an interview Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show, Cheney noted that he hopes to "protect the ability of the president and the vice president to get unvarnished advice from any source we want."

But in a letter to Cheney sent Wednesday, Representative Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee who asked the GAO to obtain the documents last year, wrote that a GAO loss would make the White House "virtually immune from routine oversight."

Waxman

Representative Henry Waxman was one of two Congress members to seek information on task force activities last April (Photo courtesy Office of the Representative)
"Executive privilege would never have to be invoked," wrote Waxman. "Future presidents could simply rely on your precedent that no White House could be required to provide information or submit to oversight."

Comptroller Walker said the GAO "strongly disagree[s] with the Vice President's objections to our audit and access authority."

"We disagree with the White House position that the formation of energy policy by the NEPDG is beyond congressional oversight and GAO review," Walker wrote. "Were the Vice President's arguments in this case to prevail, any administration seeking to insulate its activities from oversight and public scrutiny could do so simply by assigning those activities to the Vice President or a body under the White House's direct control."

Walker noted that the GAO has shown restraint in its requests, even delaying its planned lawsuit against Cheney's office in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the vice president has opted against voluntarily releasing the requested documents, or seeking a middle ground that both Congress and the White House could both live with.

When the 80 year old agency was created, Congress included a "safety valve to preclude judicial enforcement of GAO's access rights," under which the executive branch can request a compromise regarding the GAO's records request. "The executive branch has chosen not to use this mechanism," Walker noted.

"Failure to provide the information we are seeking serves to undercut the important principles of transparency and accountability in government," Walker concluded. "These principles are important elements of a democracy. They represent basic principles of 'good government' that transcend administrations, partisan politics, and the issues of the moment. As such, they should be vigorously defended."