WASHINGTON – After a Senate panel voted to issue subpoenas Wednesday, the White House turned over summaries of dozens of contacts between Bush administration officials and Enron executives.
No instance has been found so far of Enron officials asking anyone in the White House for help before Enron's bankruptcy last December, the White House said.
The summaries were provided to the Governmental Affairs Committee hours after it voted to issue Congress' first subpoenas to the Bush White House. The party-line vote set up the opportunity for Congress to subpoena staff of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to discuss their contacts with Enron Corp. officials.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss a congressional suit seeking information on the vice president's energy task force, which was used to develop the Bush administration's energy policy last year.
The Senate committee's 9-8 vote followed Republican charges that committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., was playing politics in an effort to give the impression that the White House had something to do with the Enron wrongdoing that led to the energy giant's collapse last December, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Enron was a large contributor to the Bush presidential campaign.
"Are we doing this to attract the intention of the public?" Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., asked. "It makes me very suspicious about the motivation of asking for a subpoena."
"Your suspicions are unwarranted," Lieberman responded. "The clear message I've gotten from the White House is that they're not going to give us what we want."
Lieberman's request for information on White House contacts dates back to March and succeeds efforts by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, to get information from Cheney, who led the National Energy Policy Development Group that made policy recommendations based on consultations with industry figures, including Enron executives.
Cheney has refused to hand out the information, and GAO sued in February, one month after the White House disclosed that former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay called members of the Bush Cabinet, including Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, to discuss the company's troubles. The administration did not offer to intervene, officials said.
In seeking to dismiss the suit, the Justice Department said Wednesday that the GAO's suit was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers.
"The president has the constitutional right to obtain confidential advice from close advisors and to recommend legislation to Congress," said Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock. "The NEDPG's information-gathering and policy-developing activities fall within the president's exclusive responsibilities and outside the investigative authority of Congress. The GAO is a creation of Congress, and has limited power to investigate the government's financial transactions and to review the results of certain government programs to ensure they achieve their congressionally stated objectives."
The White House also called the Senate panel vote "unnecessary."
"Sen. Lieberman's party-line vote was unnecessary. We are perplexed as to why he chose this confrontational approach rather than work cooperatively with the White House," said White House spokeswoman Anne Womack. "Sen. Lieberman was told last week the White House was ready to provide some information. Lieberman then went ahead and took the unusual step of going ahead and subpoenaing it. The White House tried to work with Lieberman on points of contention. All attempts to accommodate him were rejected."
The vote follows a promise by Lieberman to seek a subpoena if the material requested doesn't arrive before the end of the month. On Tuesday, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote Lieberman, who is considering a run for president in 2004, asking that he withhold subpoenaing staff until he reads the information that the administration was to submit. To do otherwise, he wrote, would be to act "precipitously" and contrary to executive-legislative branch relations practice.
Gonzales has sent out a questionnaire to 204 White House staffers to find out what their contacts with Enron were. He also was collecting e-mails, entry records to the White House and other documents.
"We already have taken numerous steps to gather information requested by the committee," he said. "We are preparing to respond soon to assist the committee's inquiry."
Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said Gonzales' letter contained no new proposal to resolve the impasse.
The Governmental Affairs Committee has been looking into why federal regulators did not raise warning flags about Enron's questionable business practices and intervene. Thousands of employees lost their retirement accounts, which were invested in the firm, and shareholders were left holding valueless stocks after the Dec. 2 bankruptcy.
Fox News' Ian McCaleb and Andy Schwartz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.