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Ex-Reagan official hired to challenge White House

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) -- The General Accounting Office has hired a veteran Supreme Court litigator and former Reagan administration official to head up its fight over records from an energy task force led by the vice president.

Carter Phillips, the managing partner of the Washington office of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, will be the lead attorney representing the GAO -- the investigative arm of Congress -- in its unprecedented lawsuit against the White House, the office said Thursday.

The congressional office announced Wednesday its intent to sue the Bush administration -- "the first time the GAO has filed suit to enforce our access rights against a federal official," the agency said in a statement.

The fight for the notes, which began as a request from the GAO last summer, heated up with the financial collapse of Enron, an energy company whose downfall is the subject of numerous probes. The Houston-based company was the largest single donor to Bush's presidential campaign, and some Democratic leaders have linked Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both one-time oil executives, to Enron.

Sidney Austin Brown & Wood is a large Chicago-based firm whose Washington office is known in legal circles for its skill in litigation and appellate arguments. Phillips himself is not considered much of a "political player" in Washington, legal sources said, although he did serve in the Justice Department under Republican President Ronald Reagan.

As of October 2000, Phillips had won 18 and lost 13 cases decided by the Supreme Court since his first such appearance in 1982, as a 29-year-old assistant to the solicitor general.

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

Phillips, now 49, clerked for Chief Justice Warren Burger before entering private practice in 1984. He has represented several corporate clients, including Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Norfolk Southern, Conseco, AT&T Wireless and General Electric.

Suit may be filed within weeks

GAO Comptroller General David Walker told CNN on Wednesday that his agency will likely file its suit within two to three weeks, giving the White House a "reasonable amount of time" to review the request.

White House officials maintain the GAO has no right to have the details from a series of closed-door meetings the task force had last year as it crafted the administration's energy plan. They criticized the threatened lawsuit as politically motivated, although Walker says the GAO is a professional, non-partisan organization.

"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 spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.

Since questioning environmental groups lack of input in Bush's energy plan, Democrats have redoubled their calls for records relating to the energy task force following Enron's collapse, pointing out that the company's executives participated in some of the meetings.

In addition to several congressional committees, the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating Enron's swift collapse and its decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection December 2, 2001 -- the largest such filing in U.S. history.

Thousands lost their pensions and life savings in Enron's downfall, which began last fall when the firm acknowledged several hundred million dollars of previously undisclosed liabilities.

-- CNN Correspondents Jonathan Karl, John King, Kelly Wallace and Kate Snow contributed to this report.


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