WASHINGTON – The White House, resisting congressional efforts to learn which business executives met with President Bush about energy policy, accused investigators Tuesday of overstepping their legal authority in pursuit of the information.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush aides cannot accommodate even an amended request from the General Accounting Office, seeking dates of meetings, participants and meeting topics.
"The GAO continues to ask for information that oversteps their bounds," Fleischer said. "They continue to ask for subject matter of meetings, which gets into what is said, of course."
The spokesman said Bush's stance is unchanged. Lawyers from both sides continue to discuss the matter, he said, but "they're not negotiating."
After a breakfast meeting between Bush and congressional leaders, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the president reiterated that he will not give congressional investigators the names they seek.
Bush said "that he thinks the president can have informational conversations in the White House, in the Oval Office, without disclosing that information," Hastert told reporters after the private meeting.
The head of the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, said he would decide this week whether to sue to force the White House to turn over documents on the meetings Vice President Dick Cheney held with business executives as he crafted a national energy policy last year.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, meanwhile, continued to press its own investigation into Enron's collapse and the massive destruction of Enron-related documents by its auditor Arthur Andersen LLP. Committee leaders on Tuesday asked Andersen chief executive Joseph Berardino in a letter for additional detailed information on the accounting firm's work for Enron and its internal inquiry into the document shredding.
In a Monday news conference, Bush said the order for documents is "an encroachment on the executive branch's ability to conduct business."
"In order for me to be able to get good, sound opinions, those who offer me opinions, or offer the vice president opinions, must know that every word they say is not going to be put into the public record," Bush said.
"The president very strongly restated that this morning," Hastert said Tuesday.
Standing beside the speaker, Democrats Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt did not comment.
Asked how this GAO request differed from Republican demands for Hillary Clinton's health-care task force records when she was first lady, Hastert replied simply: "We didn't get that, did we?"
The White House has said representatives of the now-collapsed Enron Corp., a Houston-based energy broker with deep ties to Bush, met six times last year with Cheney or his aides to discuss energy issues.
In an interview with CNN, Cheney said Monday the administration made these same arguments against disclosure with the GAO last summer, and the agency backed off at that time.
"I think because they know they've got a weak case," he said.
"What's happened now, since Enron's collapse, is the suggestion that somehow now the GAO ought to come back and get this information," Cheney said. "The collapse of Enron in no way, shape or form affects the basic principles we're trying to protect here. This is about the ability of future presidents and vice presidents to do their job."
Congressional Democrats, however, accused the White House of stonewalling.
Philip Schiliro, chief of staff to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said the GAO is not seeking the records of internal deliberations within the administration, as the White House says; investigators want only the names of the company officials or lobbyists and the subjects they brought up.