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GAO to sue White House over energy notes

Letter from GAO's comptroller general:
Letter from GAO's comptroller general: "This will be the first time that GAO has filed suit to enforce our access rights against a federal official. We hope it is the last time. ..."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Moving toward an unprecedented legal showdown, the investigative arm of Congress announced Wednesday its intention to file suit against the White House to force it to release notes involving an energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The fight for the notes began when the General Accounting Office requested them last summer. It has heated up with the financial collapse of Enron, the Texas-based energy giant whose downfall is the subject of numerous probes.

"This will be the first time that GAO has filed suit to enforce our access rights against a federal official," the accounting office said in a statement on its Web page. "We hope it is the last time that we will have to do so."

The statement said the lawsuit would be filed in federal court in Washington but did not say when.

White House officials maintain the GAO has no right to the details from a series of closed-door meetings the task force had last year as it crafted the administration's energy proposal.

"The president will stand strong on principle, fighting for his right and the right of all future presidents to receive advice without it being turned into a virtual news release," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said while traveling Wednesday with President Bush in North Carolina.

GAO decision on energy task force notes  (FindLaw) (PDF)
GAO's August 2001 request for documents  (FindLaw) (PDF)

"The president will fight for this right in a court of law and the White House expects to prevail because our case is strong, our policy is sound and principle is on our side."

Fleischer said the administration is not asserting executive privilege in this matter. Instead, the administration maintains that the GAO, as a statutory agency created by Congress, does not have jurisdiction over a constitutional officer such as the vice president.

Anticipating a court battle, Bush said Tuesday, "Bring it on."

Environmental questions

The GAO, concerned that environmental groups were not well represented in last summer's energy meetings, also questioned Bush's and Cheney's ties to the energy industry. Its requests for notes were declined.

Since then, Democrats have redoubled their calls for the documents, noting that Enron executives participated in some of the meetings.

Critics say Enron, which was a big financial supporter of Bush's political career and a donor to numerous campaigns, had undue influence on what the task force put forward. The White House denies those claims.

The Houston-based energy corporation filed for bankruptcy last month amid accusations of questionable accounting practices and the destruction of key financial documents.

A Democratic lawmaker accused the White House of "stonewalling" in its refusal to hand over the notes.

"If the administration succeeds in stonewalling on this issue, it erodes the ability of the Congress to do the job of conducting oversight," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California.

"If we can't find out what the executive branch is doing in their official capacity as a maker of policy, we can't do our job to oversee them."

The White House maintains that turning over the notes would erode the ability of the executive branch to get advice in private and to deliberate matters.

Most, but not all, congressional Republicans back the White House on the issue, which was a major part of discussion at a private GOP Senate lunch Tuesday.

Assistant Minority Leader Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma, called Comptroller General David Walker Tuesday to appeal to him to slow the process down and be less aggressive toward the White House.

But in Wednesday's GAO statement, Walker said "failure to pursue this matter could lead to a pattern of records access denials" that would undercut GAO's oversight role."

His office, Walker added, was prepared to go to court in September, but the September 11 attacks delayed action.

-- Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl and White House correspondents John King and Kelly Wallace contributed to this report.




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