WASHINGTON – A federal judge ordered the White House on Tuesday to save records from energy task force meetings and warned the Bush administration it must take seriously a private group's lawsuit seeking the records.
President Bush has refused to turn over records of meetings with Enron executives and others who advised the administration on energy policy last year.
Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, is expected to sue soon for the records' release. Tuesday's hearing involved a similar lawsuit, filed last July by the private group, Judicial Watch.
"I get the feeling the government's underestimating the seriousness of this case," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan told Justice Department lawyer Anne Weismann.
He asked Weismann where the records were. The vice president and eight agencies she said have information should maintain it, he said.
The Justice Department already had instructed the White House and the Commerce, Energy and Treasury departments to keep all Enron records.
The judge also asked if the White House would claim executive privilege if he sought information about meetings as part of the lawsuit. Weismann said administration officials may, but it would not be their total defense.
Enron's collapse in December has renewed interest in records of Bush's energy policy task force, which was run by the vice president. Bush is a longtime friend of former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay.
Judicial Watch Chairman Larry Klayman told Sullivan that months before the company's failure his organization was worried that executives of Enron and others were secretly "exercising undue influence over the vice president, the executive branch."
His group, best known for multiple lawsuits it filed against the Clinton administration, wants details of the meetings. Judicial Watch sued under a 1972 law intended to promote openness for presidential panels. The administration is stonewalling, Klayman said.
"This hasn't happened since Nixon, a complete defiance" in withholding records, he told the judge.
Sullivan ordered both sides to submit more information and return to court April 9.
Bush said last month that release of the records would be "an encroachment on the executive branch's ability to conduct business."
Records of meetings with presidents and vice presidents do not have to be made public, Weismann said. The case is being taken seriously, she said, and whatever the ruling, an appeal is likely.
Judicial Watch had sued the task force, which disbanded after making recommendations on energy policy last year. Klayman said the lawsuit would be revised this week to add as defendants the vice president, members of the task force and possibly Bush and people who may have met at the White House.
The GAO said last month it would also sue to get information. Klayman said he expects the new lawsuit to be similar to the one his group filed seven months ago.