White House to GAO: See you in court
By Kate Snow, Kelly Wallace and Dana Bash
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A senior Bush administration aide Saturday predicted a legal showdown -- and a White House victory -- over efforts to force Vice President Dick Cheney to provide information about the energy task force he ran last year.
David Walker, the head of the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- said Saturday that he hoped to avoid going to court, but would do so if an accord is not reached.
A senior White House aide, who asked not to be named, said he would not be surprised if the GAO took the matter to court -- a move he called an "unprecedented" step that could "infringe" on the president and future president's ability to receive advice in private.
"We'll see them in court," the aide said. "We do not expect they would prevail."
Walker said he would wait until after President Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday before filing suit, since so many Bush administration aides are focused on that right now.
"This is about the right of the Congress to oversee the executive branch, the right of the GAO to assist Congress," Walker said. "Our concern is that never before have we had a situation where an administration has refused to provide this kind of information, whether it be a Democratic or Republican administration."
Who, when, where and how much
Cheney told Senate Republicans at a private meeting this week he has no intention of releasing the information being sought about the task force meetings, CNN has learned.
The GAO wants to know several things about last year's closed-door meetings -- including the names of energy executives who attended, when and where the meetings were held and how much they cost the taxpayers. A congressional aide said the GAO is not after minutes, transcripts and notes from the meetings.
For months, the White House has said there is no reason to provide details of the sessions and accused critics of engaging in a mere "fishing expedition."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has repeatedly said constituents have the right to meet with their government without being scrutinized.
"There is a very important principle involved here. And that is the right of the government and all future presidencies, whether they're Democratic or Republican, to conduct reviews, to receive information from constituents regardless of their party or their background in a thoughtful and deliberative fashion," Fleischer told reporters earlier this month.
Cheney has shared limited information, but only as it relates to Enron Corp., the now-bankrupt energy trader. He told lawmakers that he met with Enron officials, including former CEO Ken Lay, six times last year.
GAO is interviewing law firms
Walker told CNN he could understand Cheney's position in not wanting to describe every detail of every meeting he has had as vice president.
"I have some sympathy for his concern about drawing a reasonable line," Walker said. But, he said, the administration decided to form this task force and put Cheney in charge. "That changed the ball game."
Walker said the GAO has been interviewing law firms to handle the lawsuit and was "very close" to hiring an attorney.
Walker said two factors were pushing the GAO toward a decision: a letter earlier this week written by four top Democratic senators endorsing the request for information about Cheney's Energy Task Force; and comments by some Republican senators who also support the release of information.
Speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation" last weekend, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee, said, "Let's get everything out and get it over with. I don't think there's anything there that they're concerned about, frankly."
On Thursday, two leading House Democrats again called on the GAO to file suit.
Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to Walker.
"We commend you for your efforts to resolve this matter through negotiation," the congressmen wrote. "It is now clear to us, however, that the vice president has expressed no intention of cooperating with your investigation. As a result, we urge you to proceed with a lawsuit at this time."
The two lawmakers first requested that the GAO investigate the task force in April 2001. Dingell and Waxman said the comptroller general has "received virtually no cooperation from the administration."
On January 16, Waxman released a report that charged Enron benefited in at least 17 provisions of the Bush administration's energy plan. A spokeswoman for Cheney dismissed the report as "election-year maneuvering," adding that "the issue of Enron's financial situation was never raised" in the task force meetings.
In another development, the Sierra Club said it will file a lawsuit Friday afternoon in an attempt to force the White House to reveal whom it met with while drafting its energy plan.
Allen Mattison, spokesman for the Sierra Club, said the group took the action against the Energy Task Force because "they keep stonewalling."
"Americans deserve to know who's in the room drafting the energy policy," Mattison said.
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