WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Monday rebuffed congressional efforts to learn about meetings that Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force held with industry executives and lobbyists while formulating the Bush administration's energy plan.
In dismissing the lawsuit by the investigative arm of Congress, U.S. District Judge John Bates said only seven senators and congressmen had expressed support for the efforts to get the information.
The lawsuit by Comptroller General David Walker against Cheney was an unprecedented act that raised serious separation-of-powers issues and "no court has ever before granted what the comptroller general seeks," wrote Bates.
"This case, in which neither a House of Congress nor any congressional committee has issued a subpoena for the disputed information or authorized this suit, is not the setting for such unprecedented judicial action," wrote the judge.
The White House said the ruling supported the idea that the president must be able to receive "unvarnished advice."
Walker said the General Accounting Office was very disappointed and would consult with congressional leaders before deciding whether to appeal.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., called it "regrettable, but not surprising, that a newly appointed federal judge chose to look the other way." Bates was appointed by President Bush.
The Cheney energy plan issued in the spring of 2001 called for expanded oil and gas drilling on public land and eased regulatory barriers to new nuclear power plants. The plan's recommendations included steps to increase conservation and encourage the use of alternative fuels as well as to protect the environment.
The suit asked the court to require Cheney to reveal who attended the energy tax force meetings, with whom the task force met to develop its recommendations, how it determined whom to invite and how much it cost to develop the policy.
Aside from a few details that the Bush administration revealed amid the collapse of Enron Corp., the White House has refused to identify the people the Cheney task force met with. Enron representatives met six times with the vice president or his aides. Enron has been Bush's biggest campaign donor over the years.
Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Dingell first requested information more than a year and a half ago about which industry executives and lobbyists the Cheney task force was meeting with.
As the dispute grew, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota joined the fight, urging that Cheney disclose data about his industry meetings. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., endorsed going to court.
Congress created the GAO in 1921 and Congress granted the GAO judicial enforcement power in 1980.
But "the highly generalized allocation of enforcement power to the comptroller general 22 years ago hardly gives this court the confidence that the current Congress has authorized this comptroller general to pursue a judicial resolution," the judge wrote.
Lawyers for the GAO had argued that information from the Cheney task force would reveal whether the Bush administration's policy was formulated based on input from a broad representation of affected groups or whether Congress ought to seek the views of other interested parties.
Bates pointed out that even when a Senate committee in the Watergate scandal sought enforcement of its subpoena for Richard Nixon's tapes, the federal appeals court in Washington said the committee had not demonstrated that the information was critical to the proper fulfillment of its functions. Watergate prosecutors went to court separately and got the tapes.
As a Whitewater prosecutor in the mid-1990s, Bates successfully argued in a federal appeals court that White House lawyers' notes of conversations with Hillary Rodham Clinton must be turned over to a federal grand jury.
In courtroom arguments in September, Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement of the Justice Department said Congress had other ways to seek the information other than relying on the GAO. Congress could issue subpoenas or seek information through the appropriations process, said Clement.
Other lawsuits involving the Cheney task force that are not affected by Bates' ruling and that are in the hands of other federal judges:
-- Two private groups, Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, are seeking release of task force documents under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
-- The Natural Resources Defense Council is seeking disclosure of records of the task force's executive director and other staffers -- all of whom were Energy Department employees. The group's senior attorney, Sharon Buccino, said Bates' decision "seems to be more about politics than the law."