A federal district judge in Washington, DC, has ordered the Bush administration to release additional documents and records of the task force that was created by Vice President Dick Cheney to produce a national energy strategy.

The 90-page court ruling, which was issued Wednesday, was a major setback for the Bush White House, but it was a big win for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national environmental group, and Judicial Watch, a public watchdog organization, which had filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain the records in 2001.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman ordered the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Interior (DOI) and a number of other federal agencies to turn over their task force-related documents by June 1 of this year.

The federal departments have released documents in the past, but the NRDC expects these to be “the most useful documents to shed light on how the task force came up with its recommendations” in the Bush energy policy, which was issued in the spring of 2001, said NRDC spokesman Howard Crystal.

Friedman concluded that “agency and departmental employees who were detailed to the Office of the Vice President to work on the National Energy Policy Development Group [task force] remained agency employees and [could not] be viewed as distinct from their departments or agencies,” and thus “any documents they created or obtained while working as part of the NEPDG or its working group remained agency documents subject to disclosure under the FOIA.”

While this lawsuit challenged the Bush administration under the FOIA, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear another case this month in which Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, an environmental group, are seeking to force the Cheney task force to disclose the names of energy companies and officials who sat in on task force meetings and may have had a hand in crafting the administration’s energy policy.

In that lawsuit, which was upheld by the lower courts, the two groups argued that the failure by the Bush administration to release the information was a violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (the open meeting law). The high court agreed in January to hear a petition by the administration seeking to block the efforts of Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club to compel disclosure.

The records ordered for release by Friedman should shed further light on issues in the case before the Supreme Court, the NRDC said.

The tempest over the task force records began in early 2001 when Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Dingell (D-MI) suspected that large Bush campaign contributors, such as former Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth Lay, had unduly influenced the drafting of the energy policy. They called on the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, to investigate the task force.

The GAO ultimately was forced to bring a lawsuit when the administration refused to furnish sought-after information on the grounds that it would encroach on the authority of the executive branch. A federal district court in Washington dismissed the suit in February 2003.

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