WASHINGTON – A federal judge criticized the Bush administration Thursday for its tactics on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force as it tries to keep secret the names of industry executives and lobbyists who helped formulate the White House energy plan.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said "I assume the government is stalling" in seeking more time to erect legal defenses to block requests for the information.
On behalf of the Cheney task force, Justice Department lawyer Anne Weismann asked for 17 additional days to develop legal arguments designed to thwart disclosure. Sullivan reluctantly granted seven in the lawsuit filed by the conservative group Judicial Watch seeking Cheney task force documents.
Sullivan became the second federal judge to suggest the administration is engaging in a strategy of delay as the investgative arm of Congress and private organizations try to force the White House to reveal the contacts the Cheney task force had with industry last year.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Energy Department to release thousands of pages of material on Cheney's task force, saying the government has no legal justification "for working at a glacial pace" in producing the documents for public scrutiny.
"The administration, as always, will cooperate," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the suit filed against the Energy Department by an environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Natural Resources Defense Council asked for the documents April 26 and sued the government in December.
Energy Department spokeswoman Jill Schroeder said, "We've always said we would comply with their request and have worked diligently to do so."
The ruling could undercut the Bush administration's effort to keep secret the names of industry executives and lobbyists who met with the White House as it formulated its energy policy last spring.
The General Accounting Office and a conservative group, Judicial Watch, have filed separate lawsuits trying to force the White House to surrender the material.
The Energy Department says 7,500 pages on Cheney's task force are responsive to the NRDC's request.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was on Cheney's task force, and the government must release information about who from industry met with energy officials, said NRDC attorney Sharon Buccino.
Buccino said the government may try to withhold information about what happened at the meetings, which would set the stage for the next battle in the lawsuit. The judge required the Energy Department to submit a list of withheld documents by April 25.
Starting March 25 and ending April 10, the Energy Department must turn over its documents to the NRDC, an environmental group. The department had asked to release the material in stages, beginning March 15 and ending May 15.
"There can be little question that the Department of Energy has been woefully tardy" in processing the request, the judge wrote in her ruling, dated Feb. 21.
"After making a virtually meaningless release of some form letters back in May of 2001, the department has done little of substance -- apart from collecting and organizing responsive documents," the judge added. "What is even more distressing," she wrote, is that at least 11 other requests had been made for the same documents.
"The significance of this information for us is that it is going to expose the Bush energy plan's purpose as a payback to polluters," said the NRDC's Buccino. "The plan benefited Enron and other big energy companies while doing nothing for public health and the environment."
Schroeder, the energy department spokeswoman, said, "It's no secret that the Energy Department worked on the energy policy or that we meet with and accept input from groups and organization who are interested in energy policy."