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The Nation

Lawyers for Cheney, GAO Square Off Over Records

Court: Agency wants details of energy policy meetings vice president held. He has refused.

September 28, 2002|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — Attorneys for Vice President Dick Cheney and for the General Accounting Office each told a federal judge Friday that their clients would suffer immeasurable harm by a ruling against them, as a historic showdown between two branches of government got underway in court.

Cheney has refused demands by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, to turn over records detailing who attended meetings of his National Energy Policy Development Group, an advisory body that helped formulate the Bush administration's energy policy.

In nearly three hours of arguments before U.S. District Judge John Bates, high-profile attorneys for each side urged the judge to view legal theories and earlier precedents as critical to their individual missions.

The GAO also wants the vice president to explain why members of the group, which included high-ranking members of the administration and at least some energy business executives, were invited. The GAO also wants to know when and where the group met, and what funds it used.

Cheney, as chairman of the group, rejected the demands, saying the agency has no right to such sensitive information from the executive branch.

The resulting confrontation is the first time in the GAO's 81-year history that it has sued a federal official to gain access to records.

"The executive branch is asking the court to deal blows ... that would be extremely damaging or fatal to the GAO's ability" to investigate the executive branch, said Carter G. Phillips, the outside attorney representing the GAO. He is a veteran litigator who has argued 34 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Phillips said Title 31, the legislation spelling out the powers for the GAO, mandates that it be able to oversee the expenditure of public funds and how government agencies operate--including most actions of the executive branch.

The GAO's legal briefs say the executive branch has complied with "countless" GAO requests for similar information.

Phillips also pointed out that the GAO had dropped its requests for transcripts and minutes of the advisory group's meetings in an attempt to compromise.

But Paul Clement, principal deputy solicitor general, countered that the GAO was overstepping its authority in seeking decision-making material. "They seek to compel the vice president to give up documents that would show his and his closest advisors' decision-making," he said. "This is unprecedented. It would allow a revolution in the separation of powers."

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