GAO Moves Step Closer to Lawsuit over Task Force Records

Comptroller General David M. Walker has submitted a General Accounting Office (GAO) report to Congress outlining the agency's months-long failed attempt to obtain records from Vice President Dick Cheney related to the workings of the Cabinet-level task force on energy policy.

The report was forwarded to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), and is the final step before the GAO brings a civil lawsuit to gain full access to certain records of the Cheney-led task force, which developed President Bush's national energy policy.

"Unless an exemption...is invoked, such as certification by the president or director [of] OMB, I am authorized to bring a civil action for judicial enforcement...if full and complete access to the records we are requesting is not provided to [the] GAO within 20 days following the filing of this report," Walker wrote in the report.

This would be the first time that the GAO would be forced to resort to legal action against the White House or other executive branch officials to compel production of information and records. Both Bush and the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), however, have the power to abort the agency's inquiry simply by sending a "certification" letter to the GAO.

The report came two week after Cheney refused to respond directly to a letter from Walker seeking access to the task force's records and asserting the agency's authority to undertake its inquiry (See NGI, Aug. 13). Instead, Cheney sent letters to the House and Senate earlier this month, claiming that Walker had "exceeded" his "lawful authority" by demanding the records, and that his conduct -- if it persisted -- could interfere with the functioning of the executive branch.

But Walker disputed both claims in the report. "...[A]s Comptroller General of the United States, I have broad discretion to conduct audits, investigations, and examinations of executive branch activities either at the request of Congress or on my own authority," he wrote. Moreover, "in our view, the information that [the] GAO seeks is not protected by executive privilege," as Cheney asserts, Walker said.

The GAO has requested the names of those who were present at each group meeting of the task force; the names of the professional staff that was assigned to provide support to the task force; the names of people who the task force (including Cheney) and its support staff met with to gather information for the national energy policy, including the date, subject and location of the meetings; and the direct and indirect costs that were incurred while developing the president's national energy policy.

Walker noted that he tried several times to set up a meeting with either Cheney or other staff members of the National Energy Policy Development Group, as the task force is formally called, but had no success.

The GAO launched the investigation in May at the urging of Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Dingell (D-MI), who voiced concerns about the conduct, operations and funding of the energy task force. The congressmen claimed that the task force meetings violated the sunshine laws and the "letter and spirit" of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Their request for the probe was prompted by news reports that the task force had met privately with large campaign contributors, such as Enron Corp. CEO Kenneth Lay, to formulate the president's energy policy.

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