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Cheney Is Set to Battle Congress to Keep His Enron Papers Secret
ELISABETH BUMILLER . NY Times . 21 january 2002

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 — Vice President Dick Cheney said today that the White House was prepared to go to court to fight the release of documents demanded by Congress as part of the investigation into any influence the Enron Corporation (news/quote) had in formulating the Bush administration's energy policy.

Mr. Cheney said that the General Accounting Office, the agency demanding the documents, was overstepping its authority and that he had a right to keep the documents secret to preserve his ability to get "unvarnished" advice from outside consultants.

David M. Walker, the head of the General Accounting Office, responded this evening in an interview that it was now "highly likely" that he would file a lawsuit against the Bush administration if Mr. Cheney did not turn over the documents by the end of this week. Of the vice president's assertion that the agency was overstepping its bounds, Mr. Walker, the comptroller general of the United States, replied, "Talk is cheap."

It would be the first time that the accounting office, the investigative arm of Congress, sued another government department for not cooperating with an inquiry.

In interviews on the ABC program "This Week" and "Fox News Sunday," Mr. Cheney said that it was the right of the president and vice president to keep secret meetings like those that Mr. Cheney and his energy task force had over the last year with Enron executives as the administration devised its energy policy.

"What I object to," Mr. Cheney said on "Fox News Sunday," "and what the president's objected to, and what we've told G.A.O. we won't do, is make it impossible for me or future vice presidents to ever have a conversation in confidence with anybody without having, ultimately, to tell a member of Congress what we talked about and what was said."

At issue is how much Enron, a major contributor to the Republican Party, influenced the Bush energy plan, which eases environmental rules, opens public land to drilling and provides tax incentives to energy companies for exploration. Enron and the White House have acknowledged that Enron executives met five times with Mr. Cheney or members of his staff about energy last year, and documents from the meetings could show whether the administration policy mirrored any specific recommendations of Enron's.

A lawsuit would increase pressure on Mr. Cheney, who is under criticism from Democrats for his relationship with Enron, the giant energy trading company that filed for bankruptcy protection and that has ties to officials in the Bush administration.

"Now, the fact is, Enron didn't get any special deals," Mr. Cheney said on ABC. "Enron's been treated appropriately by this administration."

Mr. Cheney also said that turning over the documents would be detrimental to the presidency.

"We've seen it in cases like this before, where it's demanded that presidents cough up and compromise on important principles," Mr. Cheney said. As a result, he said, "we are weaker today as an institution because of the unwise compromises that have been made over the last 30 to 35 years."

Some Republican strategists have begun to worry that Mr. Cheney's stance is contributing to perceptions that the White House has something to hide on the issue. The New York Times/CBS News Poll published today showed that a majority of Republicans believed that the administration had not been forthcoming about its dealings with Enron.

Mr. Walker, a member of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to a 15-year term as comptroller general, said that he did not agree with Mr. Cheney's position that he was allowed to keep the meetings secret because of his position as vice president.

"This is not about the vice president's constitutional position," Mr. Walker said. "It's about his capacity as chairman of the national energy policy development group. From Day 1, this has not had anything to do with the constitutional position of the vice president. I know they want to present it that way because they think people will be more sympathetic, but that's not factually accurate."

Mr. Walker said that it was his view that the White House had put Mr. Cheney in charge of energy policy for that very reason — to claim executive privilege and avoid oversight of the group by Congress. "But that's a loophole big enough to drive a truck through," Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Walker also took issue with an assertion by Mr. Cheney that the accounting office was pursuing the information only because of the political heat generated by the Enron scandal. In the ABC interview, Mr. Cheney said that the accounting office first pursued the documents last summer but then relented under the administration's stance that the information was privileged.

"The G.A.O. sort of backed off," Mr. Cheney said. "They in effect said, `Well, maybe we aren't going to pursue it at this point.' What's re- energized it now is the question of Enron, and some efforts by my Democratic friends on the Hill to try to create a political issue out of what's really a corporate issue."

At least 10 Congressional committees are investigating the Enron debacle.

Mr. Walker responded that Mr. Cheney's statement was "absolutely false" and said that the accounting office had been prepared to go to court in September, before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred. He decided, he said, to wait until the crisis had abated before pursuing the matter.

An administration official said today that it was likely that any court fight over the documents would take years, and that the White House was convinced it had a strong case.

White House officials continue to say that the Enron debacle is a financial scandal, not a political one, and point out that the president's approval ratings remain high, above 80 percent. White House officials also say that even if Mr. Cheney turns over the documents, this will only whet the Democrats' appetite.