White House accuses GAO of overstepping its bounds
By Kelly Wallace
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House Tuesday accused Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, of overstepping its bounds in its request for information surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.
Bracing for a court battle, a senior administration official, when asked about the GAO's threat of a lawsuit, told reporters, "Bring it on."
The senior official said the administration does not want to "diminish" the capacity of future presidents to get advice in private.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Rep. Dennis Hastert on Tuesday morning told reporters the president and the vice president should be able to have informal conversations with experts from the private sector without disclosing what was discussed.
"I think it is a proprietary information. If any elected member of Congress went down to talk to the president, I think they would be shocked and chagrined to know that their information was being disseminated, if they had something that they wanted to talk about," said Hastert, R-Illinois.
Hastert said releasing the information could set an "unhealthy" precedent.
David Walker, head of the GAO, has said he will decide as early as Wednesday whether to take the administration to court if the White House continues to refuse to turn over information. If the GAO files suit, it would be the first time the congressional investigative agency has filed a lawsuit against the federal government.
Walker charges the GAO is not looking for detailed meeting notes, but a list of individuals who met with the energy task force, as well as the subject and location of those meetings and the direct and indirect costs incurred.
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, said the GAO's request goes beyond its "bounds" and it would fail at least on a technicality.
Fleischer said the GAO on July 18 sent the administration a "demand" letter, calling for the release of all meeting notes and records, as well as lists of meeting attendees, dates and locations, and then on August 17 sent a "non-compliance" letter, eliminating its earlier request for minutes and notes, and narrowing its demands to who the energy task force met, the date and subject of those meetings and the costs involved.
The Bush spokesman said that if the GAO decides to file a lawsuit based on the August 17 letter, it needs to make that letter its "demand" letter and follow up with another "non-compliance" letter, which it has yet to send.
Therefore, the administration contends that if the GAO decides to file a lawsuit based on its updated letter, it will not have honored the statutory requirements and would be told that by a federal court judge.
A spokesman for the GAO, when told of Fleischer's comments, was checking with agency lawyers for a response.
If the GAO decides to file suit, Walker would notify Congress in a letter to congressional leaders of both parties in both houses "outlining his reason for taking this matter" to court, said an official with the agency who asked not to be identified.
Cheney has acknowledged meeting with Enron executives during deliberations of an energy policy task force he headed last year. Some critics have charged that the company may have had undue influence on the policy report put forward by the task force.
The vice president's office has said that Cheney or members of his energy task force met with Enron executives six times last year, and that at no time was Enron's financial position discussed.
Cheney told CNN Monday that Enron officials were among a wide variety of people who met with the task force, and he said the new energy policy omitted some key elements that Enron wanted, including support for the Kyoto global warming treaty and mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions. By contrast, 11 of 12 recommendations made by the Sierra Club in its energy policy were included, he said.
Cheney has argued that the GAO, as a statutory agency created by Congress, does not have jurisdiction over a constitutional officer such as the vice president, and he believes handing over the information would have a chilling effect on the ability of executive branch officials to obtain candid advice.
Houston-based Enron filed for bankruptcy last month, the largest such filing in U.S. corporate history. Its downfall has been accompanied by accusations of shady accounting practices and the destruction of key financial documents. It is under numerous investigations, including a criminal probe by the FBI.
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