WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday repeated what Vice President Dick Cheney had already said: The White House would go to court to prevent probers looking into the Enron collapse from seeing records of the administration's energy task force meetings.
At a Rose Garden event with Afghan interim prime minister Hamid Karzai, Bush said the demand by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, to see notes and minutes from the meetings was out of bounds.
"I view the GAO like the vice president does — it's an encroachment on the executive branch's ability to conduct business," Bush said.
Vice President Dick Cheney said on Fox News Sunday that he was prepared to go to court to defend the administration's position that it should be allowed to have private conversations with private citizens about government policy.
The GAO had originally asked for the documents last summer, during the California energy crisis, but backed off when the White House first threatened to take the case to court.
As a result of the Enron collapse, some Democrats on the Hill, with the help of the GAO, seem to sense an opportunity to re-energize the dispute — which Cheney said he will have none of it.
"[The GAO's] jurisdiction extends to agencies created by statute. That's not me. I'm — as part of the office of the president and the vice president of the United States — a constitutional officer. And the authority of the GAO does not extend in that case to my office," Cheney told Fox News Sunday.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer repeated Cheney's position Monday.
"The president and the vice president understand that some of the biggest mistakes people make in Washington is [that] they put politics and perception before principle and policy. And that's how they govern," he said. "They believe that, if you do the right thing on principle, politics and perception have a way of taking care of themselves."
Fleischer said any efforts to create a political debate would fail.
"For all these reports of drip, drip, drip, everything seems to keep coming up dry, dry, dry."
Comptroller General David Walker said he would decide later in the week whether to sue the White House to release the records.
Supporters of the inquiry say they want to know if Enron got special treatment by being a member of the task force. Enron declared bankruptcy in December, wiping out millions of dollars in investments and leaving thousands of its own employees' 401(k) accounts virtually worthless.
"Who were these Enron officials? What did they discuss? And what role did they have in shaping national energy policy?," asked Scott Harshbarger, president of the government-watchdog group Common Cause. "The public deserves answers to these questions. Keeping this information secret only fosters suspicion and cynicism."
Democrats are also pressuring Walker, threatening to make the conflict an election-year issue if the White House doesn't reveal who attended the meetings.
"The American people have a right to know what the facts are," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "I think the administration needs to open up, to be willing to be forthcoming with all the information regarding these circumstances."
Cheney countered that Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee who asked the GAO to press the case, was focusing on the names because he couldn't make an argument on the substance of the report.
"It's unprecedented in the sense that it would make it virtually impossible for me to have confidential conversations with anybody," Cheney said. "It says that I, and future vice presidents, would be in a position where any time Henry Waxman or any other member of Congress wants to demand of me information about the meetings I hold, I'd have to give it to them."
Cheney added that he has already turned over numerous documents and financial records.
The White House said recently that representatives of Enron, an energy trader and the seventh-largest U.S. corporation, met with Cheney or his aides six times on energy issues last year.
Asked whether anything in the energy plan was included specifically for Enron or at its urging, Cheney replied: "I can't say. I'm sure they supported many parts of it. ... I can't say a particular proposal came from them."
Cheney also defended the conduct of Army Secretary Thomas White, a former vice chairman of Enron's energy-services division, which reportedly was one of the units used to conceal the company's huge losses. Enron overstated its total profits by more than $580 million since 1997.
White has "always conducted himself in an ethically fine manner," Cheney said. "There's no evidence to indicate anybody did anything wrong in the administration."
The Justice Department is currently pursuing a criminal investigation of Enron and its longtime auditor, the Big Five accounting firm Arthur Andersen. The Securities and Exchange Commission has been investigating since Oct. 31. Eleven congressional panels also have opened inquiries.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.