- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

The General Accounting Office yesterday sued Vice President Richard B. Cheney to release records of the White House energy task force, a move the administration vowed to fight in order to preserve the privacy of deliberations.
"This is the first time that GAO has filed suit against a federal official in connection with a records access issue," the agency said in a statement. "We take this step reluctantly."
"Nevertheless, given GAO's responsibility to Congress and the American people, we have no other choice," added the agency, which serves as the investigative arm of Congress. "Our repeated attempts to reach a reasonable accommodation on this matter have not been successful."
White House officials criticized the lawsuit as they hunkered down for a protracted court battle.
"We have been ready to fight for this important principle since last August, when the GAO first indicated they were going to file a lawsuit," said Scott McClellan, White House deputy press secretary. "We look forward to the matter being reviewed by the courts."
A senior administration official added: "The GAO is overstepping their bounds. If they were to win this, where would it stop? I mean, are they going to be able to come and get the president's conversations with a field commander?"
The 25-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, argued that Mr. Cheney should follow the precedent set by former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was forced to turn over records of her health care task force.
White House officials countered that Mrs. Clinton's task force was made up largely of nongovernmental employees, making them subject to stricter disclosure laws. The energy task force, which was chaired by Mr. Cheney, was made up of federal officials, although they did consult with private individuals.
The GAO also suggested that the White House was willing to disclose documents that might prove embarrassing for former President Bill Clinton but was unwilling to provide access to potentially embarrassing documents involving the current president.
"GAO has been investigating possible vandalism to White House office premises allegedly performed by the staff of the Clinton administration," the lawsuit said. "In that matter, the current administration has granted GAO access to White House records and personnel to facilitate the investigation."
An administration official dismissed the comparison.
"Information about vandalism is not confidential advice given to the president or the vice president," the source said. "This is a very important constitutional privilege we're talking about the ability of the president and the vice president to receive frank and candid advice from their most intimate advisers."
The dispute began in April, when two Democratic congressmen, Reps. Henry A. Waxman of California and John D. Dingell of Michigan, requested an investigation into the energy task force. The White House argued yesterday that under federal law, such probes can be initiated only by congressional committees, Congress itself or the GAO's comptroller general, not individual members of Congress.
"Otherwise, that would mean that any congressman with a political ax to grind could request that the GAO conduct an investigation into something or other," a White House official said. "That's a very dangerous step because those are taxpayer dollars that could be wasted lots of them."
Yesterday's lawsuit emphasized that the GAO has repeatedly narrowed its request for information "in the interest of comity and out of respect for the vice president."
But the agency still wants the names of those who attended task force meetings, as well as the names of outsiders who were consulted.
The GAO also wants to know how the vice president decided who would attend the meetings. Finally, the agency wants an accounting of the costs associated with development of the administration's energy policy.
Administration officials said they have already provided financial information to the GAO. But the agency said it received only 77 pages of documents, some of which were blank or covered with doodles.
"The materials were virtually impossible to analyze and consisted, for example, of pages with dollar amounts but no indication of the nature or purpose of the apparent expenditure," the lawsuit said.
"We've given them information related to the indirect and direct costs," a White House official said. "Those may be receipts, but that's what they asked for."
Another administration official complained that the dispute was started by members of Congress, whose private meetings with labor unions and minority groups are not subject to public disclosure.
"Congress is exempting themselves from the same principle we're fighting for being able to receive open, candid advice," the official said.
No trial date has been set for the case.


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