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GAO suing for White House details

Probers seeking data on meetings over energy policy

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WASHINGTON — Republicans say they may act to stop congressional investigators from suing Vice President Dick Cheney to get information on business executives who met with him and his aides on energy policy.

"I think it may come to that," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, shouldn't be "trying to impose disclosure on internal White House meetings to determine policy. If you have to do that, pretty soon there wouldn't be any meetings."

David Walker, head of the GAO, was to decide this week whether the GAO will sue to force the White House to turn over documents on the meetings held last year with business executives as the Bush administration crafted a new national energy policy.

Some of the meetings included officials from the now-collapsed Enron Corp., a Houston-based energy broker with deep ties to Bush.

Enron was a prime topic at a Senate committee hearing Tuesday during which an energy consultant suggested the company may have been using largely secret trades to manipulate energy markets.

Robert McCullough, a consultant whose clients include several Northwest utilities, testified that in the week after Enron announced its bankruptcy, the "forward price" of electricity in the West fell sharply. Enron had been a key trader in this market, which is used as a hedge against future power price changes and is unregulated.

"That certainly raises the question about whether Enron was manipulating the West Coast market" by keeping prices artificially high, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in response to the consultant's testimony.

McCullough said "the clear implication is that Enron may have been using its market dominance to set forward prices."

Other energy experts said other reasons may have been behind the price decline. Lawrence Makovich, a power industry expert at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said it would be impossible to determine simply from the decline in price whether prices were manipulated.

Makovich told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Enron nevertheless wielded significant power in the electricity markets. It functioned not only as a buyer and seller in the long-term forward market but also set up many of the transactions.

"Enron's collapse suggests that it was a mistake to allow a significant market buyer or seller to be a market-maker without oversight," Makovich said.

In resisting the GAO, Cheney insists that providing the list of industry executives would harm his ability to receive advice in the future and that the congressional investigators are overstepping their bounds. GAO, as a congressional agency, insists it has the authority to request the information.

Although lawyers were negotiating earlier, Cheney said on Sunday the dispute "probably will get resolved in court." It would be the first time in the GAO's 80-year existence that it sued the executive branch.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Tuesday he and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., planned to "talk to the agency."

"GAO is being pressured here on a partisan political basis, and they are wrong on the ground on which they are being pushed," Armey said.

Enron apparently failed to disclose many of its lobbying expenses to Congress last year. It acknowledged the problem Tuesday night after a private group that tracks money in politics compared Enron's lobbying filing to Congress in August with congressional filings by outside lobbying firms. The lobbying firms say they were paid more than $1.6 million by Enron for the first six months of 2001. Enron reported spending $825,000.

Enron spokeswoman Karen Denne said the company's spending figure submitted to Congress last Aug. 15 is meant to cover lobbying by the company's own staff and work by outside lobbying firms.

In other developments:

Stephen Cooper, Enron's new interim chief executive, tells employees he is confident the company will survive.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Pat Wood tells Congress that Enron's collapse has not damaged the nation's energy trading or energy supplies.