GAO Warns of Possible Litigation Over Energy Policy Documents

Comptroller General David M. Walker last Friday warned of "possible litigation" against the Bush administration over undelivered energy policy documents. Walker said he received an "inadequate" amount of information on Thursday from the vice president's office in response to a request from the Government Accounting Office (GAO). It would be the first time the investigative branch of Congress went to court against the executive branch.

"This is a very serious matter with significant potential implications for GAO, the Congress and the American people," said Walker. "It involves several fundamental good government principles, including the right of the Congress to oversee the executive branch, and the need for transparency and accountability in connection with the development and execution of federal government policies that can affect the lives of every American. We are finalizing our discussions with key Congressional leaders and are preparing for possible litigation."

A GAO deadline passed Thursday evening for the administration to provide the information, which is being sought at the behest of Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Dingell (D-MI).

The administration's closed door meetings with energy industry executives in the spring led to suspicions that the executives might have had too much influence on energy policy. The task force announced a plan May 17 aimed at increasing the nation's supply of energy. It includes expanded oil and gas drilling on public land and a rejuvenated nuclear power system, among other things. Environmental groups complained that the administration shut them out of the information-gathering process on the energy plan.

The GAO launched its investigation in May at the urging of the two congressmen, 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.

The information GAO requested included 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.

The vice president's office did provide some information to the GAO last Thursday evening -- a list of energy task force employees that the GAO already had received. Walker said the limited amount of information was "clearly inadequate." The Cheney task force already has told the GAO only that there were nine meetings of the task force and that staffers also met with many others to gather data.

Walker submitted a GAO report to Congress last month outlining the agency's months-long failed attempt to obtain the records. 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 task force, which with Cheney headed.

Juleanna Glover Weiss, spokeswoman for Vice President Cheney, told NGI on Thursday the White House still believes the GAO has no legal authority to demand the information. The White House could have blocked any GAO court action and ended the dispute by filing a letter of certification stating that releasing the information would "substantially impair" government operations. But the administration believes Walker has exceeded his lawful authority in this instance.

"The White House believes it has a strong and persuasive position and we belive the matter could end right now," said Weiss. "But it's clearly up to the GAO Comptroller General. Our position is that the GAO doesn't have the legal authority to request the documents they are requesting.

"I don't know what they are going to do," she added. "What I do know is that we are going to work as hard as we can to pass the energy bill in the Senate."

The GAO has forced a showdown with the executive branch in disputes over gathering information five times in the past 21 years. In two of those instances, the administration supplied the information. In the other three, the administration filed certification letters. Cheney actually was involved in one of those disputes as Secretary of Defense in 1990.

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