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Energy Department ordered to release energy task force information

From Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge ordered the Energy Department to make public information surrounding its involvement with Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, CNN has learned.

Environmentalists hailed the order as a "victory" for the American public's right to know.

"Justice has finally been served," said Rob Perks, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed a lawsuit against the Energy Department last year to obtain the information.

"We consider this a victory for America's sunshine laws. The American people have wanted to know who wrote the energy plan, and now we expect the information to reveal what went on behind closed doors at the task force meetings," he said.

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The judge's order comes a few days after the General Accounting Office filed a lawsuit against the vice president, calling on his office to turn over a list of who the energy task force met with and the dates and times of those meetings.

The Bush administration has argued that the GAO does not have the legal authority to obtain such information from the vice president, and has also argued that the vice president and the president should have the authority to meet with individuals in private to obtain "unvarnished advice" to formulate policy.

The NRDC filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Energy Department in April 2001, asking for records including a list of which agency officials sat on the energy task force; who those officials met with in the private sector; and notes from those meetings.

Environmentalists have argued that the energy industry had undue influence over the Bush administration's energy plan.

The task force, known as the Vice President's National Energy Policy Development Group, included Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham; Interior Secretary Gale Norton; Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman; Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta; Commerce Secretary Don Evans; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman; and White House budget director Mitch Daniels.

In a court order filed last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Energy Department to turn over some of the information the NRDC is seeking by March 25. The remainder must be turned over no later than April 10.

In her order, Kessler said the Energy Department has been "woefully tardy" in responding to the NRDC's request, and called the department's initial response -- a release of 33 documents -- "virtually meaningless."

Kessler wrote that the records the environmentalists sought were "of extraordinary public interest," and the department had "no legal, or practical justification for working at a glacial pace."

"The subject of energy policy, especially since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, is of enormous concern to consumers, to environmentalists, to the Congress and to industry," Kessler said.

The NRDC, she noted, "is particularly concerned about current implementation of the task force's recommendations and their environmental implications, about the secrecy in which the task force operated" and the participation of non-governmental officials who were consulted in developing the task force's recommendations.

Neither the Energy Department nor the vice president's office returned calls seeking comment Wednesday.



 
 
 
 


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