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Energy Dept. Withholding Files, Groups Charge

Documents: More pages on policymaking task force are released. Data on five key members are missing, opponents say.


WASHINGTON — The Energy Department on Wednesday released an additional 950 pages of documents related to the Bush administration's controversial task force charged with setting a new national energy policy last year.

But environmental groups that are seeking to prove that the task force was heavily influenced by energy industry lobbyists immediately complained that the administration still refuses to release key documents, including the calendars of top Energy Department officials who led the effort.

"The administration continues to play games and stonewall," said Sharon Buccino, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that won a court order earlier this year forcing the Energy Department and other government agencies to release all relevant documents by Wednesday.

The council also complained that the Interior Department has failed to adequately comply with the court order. The council plans to announce today that it will return to federal court to ask a judge to compel the Interior Department to release additional documents.

Energy Department officials said the latest release--consisting chiefly of calendar entries for half a dozen senior employees--fulfills its obligations under the court order.

The council sued the agency under the Freedom of Information Act. Judicial Watch, a government watchdog organization, won a similar suit.

Several media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, also received the documents Wednesday under separate FOIA requests.

"Today's action by [the Energy Department] concludes its production of documents in response to these FOIA requests," the department said in a statement.

But Buccino said the department continues to refuse to release the calendars of five key task force members, including Andrew Lundquist--the task force's executive director--and Karen Knutson, its deputy director.

"It's a gross omission," Buccino said.

Last month, the agency released about 11,000 pages of documents related to the task force, revealing that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with more than 55 energy industry representatives while developing the national energy policy.

At the same time, environmental groups complained that Abraham and Vice President Dick Cheney, who led the task force, turned down requests for meetings.

The earlier documents also showed that the task force and the Bush administration appear to have adopted many of the industry's suggestions verbatim.

The council noted that a "suggested" presidential executive order written March 20, 2001, by the American Petroleum Institute sought to require federal agencies to assess the effects of proposed regulations on energy supplies. Bush issued such an executive order two months later, the environmental group said.

Judicial Watch also complained that the Energy Department still has failed to turn over all requested documents, noting that thousands of pages in the March 25 batch were withheld or heavily edited. Under the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies may refuse to release information for a variety of reasons, including protecting an individual's privacy or shielding policy debates.

Judicial Watch officials said they would go back to court soon to make the administration justify the omissions and explain why it withheld as many as 15,000 additional documents.

"We plan to challenge their sweeping redactions," said Tom Fitton, president of the organization. "Frankly, the large number of redacted documents raises the inference that something is up."

The larger showdown over the task force remains unresolved.

In a rare lawsuit filed by the General Accounting Office against the vice president, the agency is demanding that Cheney provide details about his meetings with industry lobbyists as part of the energy task force.

Cheney has refused, contending that it would set a bad precedent for future administrations seeking candid advice from outside experts.

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