WASHINGTON – The White House is getting a cool reception in court as it fights to avoid identifying business executives who met with Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.
"I assume the government is stalling," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said Thursday at a hearing on a lawsuit pushing for the release of task force documents. Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman scoffed at the administration's argument that another case should be thrown out of court.
The Bush administration is trying to avoid having to identify business executives and lobbyists the Cheney task force met with as the administration formulated its energy plan a year ago.
The New York Times, citing interviews and election records, reported in its Friday edition that 18 of the energy industry's top 25 financial contributors to the Republican Party advised Cheney's task force. The newspaper quoted Cheney counselor Mary Matalin as saying the task force also consulted with trade groups and other organizations, including labor unions, that did not give money to the Republican Party.
The judges' comments Thursday came a day after criticism of the Bush administration by a third judge, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler.
Ruling on a lawsuit filed by an environmental group, Kessler ordered the department to release documents starting March 25. Documents the department withholds must be identified individually in a list to be made public by April 25, which would set the stage for a next round in the court battle.
At a court hearing Thursday, Justice Department lawyer Dan Bensing said Friedman should dismiss a lawsuit seeking documents from all federal agencies that were members of Cheney's task force because they did not wait long enough to file the suit.
"So what! ... This is just gamesmanship," Friedman replied. Nine months later, he said, the Bush administration's Cabinet agencies have turned over almost no documents and are withholding tens of thousands of pages from public scrutiny.
In another court session, Sullivan reluctantly gave the government seven additional days to file written arguments on why the Cheney task force should be allowed to withhold all documents. The government had asked for 17 extra days. Sullivan's brief extension means that he could rule as early as the second week of April on releasing material.
A fourth lawsuit also is pending for the task force records, the case filed last week by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.