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White House, GAO at odds over meetings

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WASHINGTON — The investigative arm of Congress is down to just one option — a court battle — in its unsuccessful effort to find out which industry executives and lobbyists met with the Bush White House as it formulated the administration's energy plan.

The White House refused to respond Thursday to the demands of the General Accounting Office.

"We remain confident of the strength and persuasiveness of our position," said White House spokeswoman Anne Womack. "The matter could end right now, but that of course is up to the GAO's comptroller general," David Walker, who is expected to disclose whether he will head to court to force the issue.

"I'm disappointed that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have refused to respond to this reasonable and routine request," said Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee.

"I regret that the president seems intent on forcing this matter to court but am confident that the GAO will act properly to ensure there is careful oversight of this administration," Waxman added.

At the heart of the fight is how much influence corporate America had in the work of Cheney's task force. The panel announced a plan May 17 aimed at increasing the nation's supply of energy. It includes expanded oil and gas drilling on public land and a rejuvenated nuclear power system.

Environmental groups have complained that the Bush White House shut them out of the information-gathering process on the energy plan.

The vice president's lawyer has told the GAO only that there were nine meetings of the energy task force and that staffers also met with many people.

The Bush White House could have blocked any GAO court action and ended the dispute by filing a letter of certification stating that releasing the information would "substantially impair" government operations.

But the administration this week signaled that it would not file a certification, reiterating its position that Walker "has exceeded his lawful authority and the [GAO] statute . . . does not apply in this instance."

There is "a serious argument that the president has a constitutional prerogative to seek advice," said University of Michigan law professor Steven Croley, who specializes in administrative law.

But "the other question is about good public policy or desirable practices for a democracy," Croley added.

"There we would tend to want openness, at the very least the identity of who the president or the vice president was talking to."

The GAO has forced a showdown with the executive branch in disputes over gathering information just four other times in the past 21 years. In two of those instances, the administration supplied the information. In the other two, the administration filed certification letters. One of the disputes in the certification category involved Cheney while he was defense secretary in 1990.


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The General Accounting Office: www.gao.gov