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THE FALL OF ENRON

Cheney Defends Refusal to Detail Energy Meetings

Politics: Congress' investigative arm is prepared to go to court over the issue. Vice president says the White House has handled the Enron collapse properly.

January 28, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Faced with growing legal and political challenges, Vice President Dick Cheney stepped forward Sunday to vigorously defend the administration's handling of the collapse of Enron Corp.--and his own refusal to release details of his meetings with Enron and other industry executives in formulating the Bush administration's energy policy.

Cheney's defiance puts the administration on course for a legal clash with Congress' investigative arm, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office. The head of the GAO said last week that he would sue the administration unless, by the end of this week, the agency is on track to find out whom Cheney consulted before drafting the energy policy last spring.

"In the absence of that, the courts will have to decide," Comptroller General David Walker said Sunday in an interview.

Cheney dug in for the legal battle even as some fellow Republicans have argued that he should release the information to counter the potentially damaging impression that the administration has something to hide.

But releasing the information would set a precedent that would make it impossible for him to receive "unvarnished advice" without fear of disclosure by Congress, Cheney said.

"What's really at stake here is the ability of the president and the vice president to solicit advice from anybody they want in confidence," Cheney said on "Fox News Sunday."

Those comments came during one of two wide-ranging television interviews Cheney granted Sunday--part of a recent spate of appearances that contrast with his relatively low profile after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He has spent considerable time in a "secure location," and Cheney said Sunday that security considerations still dictate some of his movements.

"We still like to avoid being predictable, in terms of the president and me being in the same place at the same time," Cheney said on ABC's "This Week." Cheney's comments came at a crucial juncture for the administration, on the eve of Bush's first State of the Union address to Congress. Bush's popularity remains sky-high, as it has been since Sept. 11.

But polls are beginning to show signs that the controversy surrounding the collapse of what had been the seventh-largest U.S. corporation could take a political toll on the GOP. A new poll by CBS and the New York Times found that 45% of those surveyed believed that Enron had closer ties to the Republican Party than to the Democrats, and more than half said the Bush administration was either hiding something or lying about Enron.

Several congressional committees, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating whether any laws were broken as Houston-based Enron disintegrated and filed for bankruptcy protection last year.

Some Republicans in Congress--including Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of a House committee that is investigating Enron--want the administration to cut its political losses and release information that officials believe will not be especially damning.

"They seem to be dug in, but from Chairman Tauzin's perspective, his recommendation is: Get the information out," said Ken Johnson, Tauzin's spokesman. "The quicker the administration moves to defuse the growing tension, the better off they will be in the long run."

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) also has urged full disclosure, even though he sympathizes with the administration's legal argument.

"Unfortunately, it's not just a legal question," Thompson said earlier this month in a television interview. "It's a policy question, and it's a political question."

The GAO has for months been seeking details about whom Cheney's energy task force consulted before issuing its report, which included many provisions favored by the energy industry to expand production. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and other Democrats argue that the policy was heavily influenced by big energy corporations at the expense of environmental interests.

The GAO was prepared to go to court over the issue last fall, Walker said, but the agency put the suit on hold after the terrorist attacks. The issue resurfaced in recent weeks, fueled by concern about Enron's political influence, and congressional Democrats urged the GAO to take legal action.

Democrats contend that continued resistance by the administration will redound to Bush's political disadvantage.

"In the aftermath of the Enron scandal and collapse, I think people are going to start to ask, 'What are they hiding?' " Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition." "This decision is a big mistake by the Bush administration."

White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," signaled a chance that a compromise could be worked out to avoid a suit.

"We'll talk with people," he said. "There are probably ways to address some of the concerns on information, but it's very important that the president and vice president have the ability to get information that they need."

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