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GAO files unprecedented suit against Cheney

Vice President Dick Cheney  

From Paul Courson

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In an unprecedented move against a sitting vice president, the investigative arm of Congress filed a federal court suit Friday challenging Vice President Dick Cheney's refusal to hand over documents related to national energy policy.

The General Accounting Office has been trying since last spring to obtain records documenting closed-door meetings of the White House's energy task force, which Cheney led, to see "how it carried out its activities and whether it followed applicable law."

Some of the meetings included executives from Enron Corp., the now bankrupt Houston-based energy trader. Congressional interest in the meetings has spiked in the time since the collapse of Enron and allegations of financial wrongdoing at the energy company.

"This is the first time that GAO has filed suit against a federal official in connection with a records access issue. We take this step reluctantly," the GAO said in a statement. "Nevertheless, given GAO's responsibility to Congress and the American people, we have no other choice. Our repeated attempts to reach a reasonable accommodation on this matter have not been successful."

The White House, which has cast the dispute as a battle over any president's ability to seek candid advice from the private sector, vowed to fight the suit.

Document: Complaint (Walker v. Cheney) from FindLaw

"We've been waiting to fight for this important principle since the GAO said they were going to file since last summer," said Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

The White House has said the GAO has no right to seek notes on policy deliberations between the energy task force and lobbyists from the energy industry, labor unions or the environmental movement.

Cheney's meetings are issue at hand

The issue at hand is the energy industry representatives Cheney and his staff met with as it developed the president's national energy policy. On six occasions, the task force met with representatives of Enron.

Cheney has said he sees the legal clash with the GAO as an opportunity to reassert executive branch privileges, thereby repairing some of the damage done to White House privileges by previous congressional investigations.

In the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the GAO lays out the specific information it seeks:

  • Documents that describe who was present at each of the energy task force meetings, including the names of the attendees, their titles and the office represented
  • Documents describing with whom Cheney and each of the task force members met with to "gather information for the proposed national energy policy"
  • How the vice president, members of the energy panel and others "determined who would be invited to the meetings"
  • The direct and indirect costs accrued in developing the national energy policy
  • Injunction sought against Cheney

    The suit also seeks the court to issue an injunction ordering Cheney to produce records from his task force, known officially as the National Energy Policy Development Group.

    "The information GAO is seeking from [Cheney] is instrumental to GAO's review of how the NEPDG spent public funds, how it carried out its activities and whether it followed applicable law," the suit says. "This information will enable GAO to report fully to Congress on the process through which the proposed national energy policy was developed, and will thereby assist Congress in the discharge of its legislating and oversight functions."

    The suit goes on to say the information also is pertinent as to whether Congress should appropriate more money for further studies.

    "Congress routinely conducts oversight of the manner in which the executive branch implements the law, and is entitled to inquire into the bases and reasons for any proposed changes in such implementation, including any potential appropriations issues associated with these changes," the suit says.

    The battle began last spring and summer when the GAO first asked for the notes from the meetings. Several Democratic lawmakers had raised concerns that environmental groups were not well represented in those meetings and they also questioned President Bush's and Cheney's ties to the energy industry.

    Democrats have redoubled their calls for the documents in the wake of Enron's fall, pointing to the fact that company executives participated in some of the meetings.

    Critics say Enron, which had been a big financial supporter of Bush's political career and a donor to numerous campaigns, had undue influence on what the task force ultimately put forward. That charge is rejected by the White House.




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