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Probe of Energy Task Force Ends

August 26, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After more than two years and an unprecedented lawsuit, congressional investigators declared Monday that they were unable to determine how much influence industry groups wielded in shaping the Bush administration's energy policy.

The General Accounting Office said in a long-awaited report that Vice President Dick Cheney's unwillingness to cooperate stymied efforts to find out which outside groups met privately with administration officials and what they discussed during the drafting of the energy plan in 2001. Cheney headed the task force, a number of whose recommendations were included in energy legislation now before Congress. The legislation has gained urgency following this month's Northeast power blackout.

The GAO report brought to an end a standoff between the investigative arm of Congress and the White House that represented the Bush administration's determination, from early on, to avoid the relentless congressional inquiries that dogged the Clinton administration.

The dispute led the GAO in February 2002 to file its first lawsuit ever against the executive branch, seeking disclosure of details about the energy task force's meetings. But the GAO lost that case in federal court in December and decided against an appeal. By then, both houses of Congress had come under Republican control, weakening the hand of the energy plan's Democratic critics in their efforts to obtain the information.

Comptroller Gen. David M. Walker, who heads the nonpartisan GAO, acknowledged Monday that the report would likely end the matter, as far as the watchdog agency is concerned.

"This is the first and only time that we have not been able to work out a reasoned and reasonable accommodation to get information that we need to do our job," Walker said in an interview. "We hope and expect that this is an isolated instance, but only time will tell."

Walker also defended his efforts to get the information. "National energy policy is a very important issue," he said. "It's not just what you're proposing but how you propose it. Process does matter."

The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch, a conservative group, continue to press a lawsuit seeking to force the administration to reveal details of the private meetings.

Congressional Democrats pounced on the GAO report as further evidence of a Bush administration penchant for secrecy.

"The Bush administration is obsessed with secrecy," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). "The result is not just bad decisions on energy, but a rejection of the principles of open government and public accountability."

Waxman, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was among the Democrats who sought the information, contending that it would show the administration's energy plan to be heavily influenced by the coal, oil, gas and nuclear power industries.

The White House argued that revealing details of the meetings would discourage candid discussions inside the executive branch. Administration officials also have insisted that the energy plan is balanced.

"Now that the courts have dismissed the GAO lawsuit, and the GAO has issued its final report, we hope that everyone will focus on meeting America's energy needs," Cheney spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise said Monday.

In its 26-page report, the GAO "pieced together" some information about the task force's dealings from thousands of pages of records that the Energy Department and other agencies -- but not the vice president's office -- were ordered to release last year under the Freedom of Information Act.

Those documents showed that industry groups and companies -- including the American Petroleum Institute, the Nuclear Energy Institute and ChevronTexaco Corp. -- provided substantial input in drafting the president's energy plan.

"The extent to which [the ideas of outside groups] were solicited, influenced policy deliberations or were incorporated into the final report is not something we can determine based on the limited information at our disposal," the GAO report concluded.

The GAO said it also was unable to determine how much the task force's operations cost taxpayers. Cheney's office provided the agency with 77 pages of information, but the GAO complained that many pages contained information "of little or no usefulness."

The House and the Senate have passed energy bills, and negotiations on a compromise measure are expected to pick up speed after Labor Day. Although energy legislation died last year when the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate deadlocked, both chambers this year are dominated by Republicans eager to deliver on one of Bush's domestic priorities and respond to the Northeast blackout as well as to recent increases in gas prices.

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