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GAO sues Cheney over energy task force advisers
Congressional investigators made good on a months-old threat and sued US Vice President Dick Cheney to force release of names of Enron and other industry figures who met with Cheney's energy task force.
Comptroller General David Walker has been trying to get the information since April and has threatened since August to sue. The White House has resisted the demands and promised to "defend our principles."
The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court, marked the first time in the GAO's 81-year history as Congress' investigative arm that it went to court to force an executive branch official or agency to release documents.
"We take this step reluctantly," Walker said. "Nevertheless, given GAO's responsibility to Congress and the American people, we have no other choice. Now that the matter has been submitted to the judicial branch, we are hopeful that the litigation will be resolved expeditiously."
The GAO contends Cheney's refusal to provide the information violates laws giving it broad authority "for evaluating programs and activities of the United States government" and requiring agencies to provide information about their "duties, powers, activities, organization and financial transactions."
Cheney's task force drafted the Bush administration's energy task force, which environmental interests have attacked as pro-business to the detriment of the environment.
Bush has refused to hand over the information demanded by the GAO. The White House contends surrendering it would encroach on his ability to get candid views from people outside the government.
"These are important constitutional principles that we've been ready to fight for since they first threatened to file the lawsuit," White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said. "We're ready to defend our principles."
The GAO names only Cheney as a defendant, both as vice president and as chairman of the National Energy Policy Development Group, which drafted the proposals Bush proposed last April.
Oversight of energy policy and the investigation of Enron, the Houston-based energy conglomerate that collapsed in December, are "important institutional prerogatives" of Congress, the GAO insists. Enron has been the largest corporate benefactor to Bush's political career.
The congressional agency argues in its lawsuit that its statutory responsibilities give it broad powers to investigate government programs and demand almost all government documents required to help Congress.
"Revealing the names of lobbyists and campaign contributors may be unpleasant to the vice president, but, as previous administrations have learned, avoiding embarrassment isn't a constitutional protection," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., one of the first lawmakers to seek the records.
Cheney's office said last month that Enron representatives met six times with Cheney or his aides about energy policy, including a discussion in mid-October, 1 1/2 months before the company's collapse. It also said that former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay met once with Cheney.
The lawsuit sets up an unprecedented fight over just how far GAO as a congressional investigating agency can reach into the executive branch. It asks a federal judge to require Cheney to reveal who attended the energy tax force meetings, with whom the task force met to develop its energy recommendations, how it determined whom to invite and how much it cost to develop the policy.
A senior White House official said the administration will challenge GAO's right to the information because the law specifies the agency's purpose is to investigate only the expenditure and disbursement of public money.
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