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GAO Chief Puts Agency in the Limelight

Politics: Though he has a history with GOP, David Walker has proved to be nonpartisan--he is suing the White House over energy policy meetings.

January 31, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — While some here question the motives of congressional committees investigating the Enron Corp. collapse, it is harder to attack the man who has decided to sue the Bush administration to get information about its energy policy task force.

David M. Walker, head of the General Accounting Office, has a solid Republican background and leads a nonpartisan congressional agency known for tough, independent scrutiny of the executive branch.

Indeed, before Walker was named in 1998 by President Clinton to the post of U.S. comptroller general, his resume included stints in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Congressional Republicans were among the strongest champions of his bid to become the government's top auditor.

"He was the choice of the Republican leadership for this position," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

At the time, Lieberman said, "there was some concern on the Democratic side about whether he'd be as nonpartisan as this office calls for, and I think he's dispelled any doubts about that."

Lawsuit a First for the Agency

Walker's announcement Wednesday--that he would sue the White House to obtain records from a task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney to design the administration's energy policy--was a singular moment for a previously little-known public official and for the agency he heads.

Though the GAO over the years has developed a reputation as a tough investigator, never since the agency's founding in 1921 has it sued the executive branch for access to records.

The brewing legal clash has prompted the White House and many of its GOP allies in Congress to launch fierce attacks on Walker's request for information. Cheney, explaining his refusal to answer the GAO chief, insisted Sunday that giving in would set a bad precedent for future administrations seeking candid advice.

The Enron scandal has put the task force under fresh scrutiny as congressional investigators have sought to determine how much influence the now-bankrupt energy company and other special interests have had with the Bush administration.

Walker has been unyielding in his insistence that the GAO, Congress and the public have a right to know what individuals or groups met with the vice president's task force, when they met and what they talked about. Walker, in an interview, said he did not relish challenging the White House, "but it's something I need to do to do my job in an objective and nonpartisan fashion."

A native of Alabama, Walker, 50, describes himself as a onetime conservative Democrat, then a moderate Republican and now, in his new job, a political independent. Among his heroes, he names Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Kennedy.

Before taking the GAO post, Walker, a certified public accountant, was a partner in Atlanta and in Washington for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen--perhaps best known today as Enron's former auditor. At Andersen, he specialized in human resources issues.

15-Year Term Gives Post Independence

In the mid- to late 1980s, Walker worked for the federal government as a mid-level Labor Department official and as acting executive director for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. He also served as a public trustee of Social Security and Medicare from 1990 to 1995.

When the comptroller general position came open in 1996 with the retirement of Charles Bowsher, Walker surfaced as the leading candidate in a search led by a bipartisan panel of lawmakers. As Democrats recalled, the panel was supposed to offer Clinton a pool of candidates.

But Lieberman and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said that Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), then the Senate majority leader, insisted on making Walker the top recommendation. Clinton ultimately agreed, and the Senate unanimously confirmed Walker's nomination in October 1998. The position has a 15-year term, giving Walker an extraordinary degree of independence. He makes $150,000 a year, the same as a member of Congress.

Lott was out of town Wednesday on a Republican Party retreat and could not be reached for comment.

Republican congressional aides said Walker still has the confidence of key lawmakers, including Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

It is hard to gauge how much support Walker has in Congress for his legal battle. "Needless to say, I've got 535 clients--100 senators and 435 House members," Walker said. "Obviously there are a number of those that strongly support us, some that have mixed emotions and some that don't like what we're doing."

But lawmakers have given the GAO a vote of confidence--in its budget. Last year the agency was given a major funding increase, to $421 million annually, up from $384 million the previous year. Walker heads a staff of nearly 3,300 employees.

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