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GAO threat to sue doesn't faze White House

By Major Garrett
CNN Washington Bureau

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- The potential General Accounting Office lawsuit against the White House to release information about its energy task force is "not a distraction at all," the White House chief of staff said Thursday.

Rating the issue's level of distraction on a scale of one to 10, Chief of Staff Andy Card said Thursday, "It's a zero."

Card also expressed doubt that the GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, would redraft its "demand letter" of July 18. That letter seeks notes and contents of discussions between the vice president's energy task force -- convened to seek input for energy policy decisions -- and energy industry lobbyists.

Although its demand letter seeks information on advice and deliberations, the GAO later said it wants only information on the dates of meetings, the names of those who attended, and the cost of the task force's operations. The demand letter, however, is the legally binding inquiry.

If the GAO did resubmit a more narrowly focused demand letter, Card said that would restart the process.

The fight for the information began as a request from the GAO last summer, and the White House has refused to turn it over. The issue heated up with the financial collapse of Enron, an energy company whose downfall is the subject of numerous investigations. Former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay -- a major Bush campaign contributor -- was among those consulted by the energy task force.

"This will be the first time that GAO has filed suit to enforce our access rights against a federal official," the GAO said Wednesday 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.

Card said he was not aware of any negotiations between the White House and the GAO over the matter. Administration officials said Vice President Dick Cheney talked with David Walker, comptroller general of the GAO, about the possible lawsuit by phone last week. In that conversation, officials said the vice president laid out the administration's legal position and vowed not to budge.

Democrats have redoubled their calls for the documents in the wake of Enron's fall. Critics say Enron had undue influence on the report the task force ultimately put forward. That charge is rejected by the White House.

Asked if he thought Democrats were pressuring the GAO to go forward with a lawsuit for partisan reasons, Card said: "I hope not."

The administration is standing firm on the GAO dispute because "it's very important for the president and the vice president as constitutional officers to have access to information in an unfettered way," he said.

On another matter, Card said the White House is at work on drafting legislation to reform 401(k) and pension laws to provide more protections from an Enron-like implosion.

"We are coming up with policy recommendations for those who participate in 401(k) and pension plans," he said. The White House timeline for release of the recommendations, Card said, is "pretty short."




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