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GAO sues for energy panel files
Don Van Natta Jr . NY Times . 28 february 2002

WASHINGTON -- In a setback to the Bush administration, a federal judge has ordered the Energy Department to release thousands of documents related to Vice President Dick Cheney's national energy task force.

The judge, Gladys Kessler of Federal District Court here, ordered the department to turn over 7,584 pages of records that the Natural Resources Defense Council had sought in April under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Last week, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, sued Mr. Cheney to force the White House to release the names of energy industry executives who helped the administration develop a national energy policy in May.

Although the files will certainly disclose new details about the activities of the panel, they will most likely include just part of what the accounting office is seeking in its suit, the names of all executives who met with the panel, the dates of meetings and the topics discussed. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was on the panel, and he was presumably at most of the meetings attended by industry executives.

Judge Kessler chastised the Energy Department for its "woefully tardy" response to the request for files, saying the information was "of extraordinary public interest." She ordered that the papers be turned over by March 25.

The ruling, signed on Thursday and released today, is the first time that a judge has ordered the administration to release documents related to the energy panel's work.

"What is even more distressing is that plaintiff was not the only requester seeking this information," Judge Kessler wrote. "D.O.E. concedes that it has at least 11 other similar F.O.I.A. requests seeking access to documents relating to the work of the Energy Task Force, and it would appear that none of those other requests have been responded to."

The New York Times (news/quote) is one of several news organizations to seek task force records under the act.

Sharon Buccino, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said tonight, "Unfortunately, it took a court order to force open a door that this administration fought hard to keep closed."

Ms. Buccino said the group intended to release all the documents immediately after receiving them.

"After being shut out of the process for nearly a year," she said, "the public will finally get to see if the administration acted on behalf of the public interest in formulating its energy plan or for the exclusive benefit of a few industry friends like Enron (news/quote) and other big energy companies."

Congressional investigators are trying to determine whether executives from corporations that had contributed to President Bush's campaign in 2000, including Enron, helped shape energy policy.

Two other groups, Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, have also sued to seek documents of the energy panel.

A spokeswoman for the Energy Department, Jeanne Lopatto, did not return calls tonight. It was unclear whether the administration would appeal the ruling.

Since the energy policy was released in May, top administration officials have refused to turn over the documents. After Enron filed for bankruptcy protection on Dec. 2, Congressional Democrats and even a few Republicans called on the administration to release the names of executives who helped formulate the policy.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney refused, arguing that the confidentiality of executive branch discussions was worth fighting for.