WASHINGTON — A federal judge Tuesday rebuffed the Bush administration on a lawsuit concerning Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and ordered six federal agencies to release records within the next two months.
Ruling in a case filed nearly a year ago, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said the Bush administration has had sufficient time to collect thousands of pages of material from its files. Also covered by Friedman's order is the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The agencies must release the material promptly or itemize the documents they want to keep confidential so that the lawsuit filed by the conservative group Judicial Watch can proceed, the judge said.
OMB found 374 documents in its files on the Cheney task force and has released six of them, saying the rest should remain secret because they are internal agency memorandums.
Friedman's decision is the second in two weeks by a federal judge setting a timetable for the prompt release of materials on the Cheney energy task force. The Bush administration is trying to keep confidential the names of industry executives and lobbyists who met with the White House as it formulated national energy policy a year ago and what the participants discussed.
"The administration has never disputed the necessity of producing information required by law to be made public," said Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock.
"The process of sorting through thousands of documents to determine which the law requires federal agencies to disclose and which Congress has protected from public disclosure, is often laborious and time-consuming," she said.
The administration argued that the case before Friedman should be dismissed because it was filed a week too soon. But Friedman refused to throw out the case, saying that some agencies still haven't responded to the document requests.
"In these circumstances, it would be putting form over substance to dismiss the complaint" and require Judicial Watch "to start all over again by filing a new complaint," Friedman wrote.
The judge said the Environmental Protection Agency is withholding 19,500 pages on the Cheney task force. The EPA's deadlines are March 25 for releasing documents and April 25 to identify documents it seeks to keep secret.
Other agencies involved in the order are Interior, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation and Commerce.
The Commerce Department has 9,000 pages of documents regarding the Cheney task force, and the Transportation Department has 6,000 pages.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled Feb. 21 that the Energy Department must release records relating to the Cheney task force starting March 25 and must provide a list by late April of the documents it intends to keep secret. The Energy Department says it has 7,500 pages relating to the task force.
The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, also has filed a lawsuit against Cheney, trying to force disclosure of the material.