Cheney Sued Over Access to Records

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for the General Accounting Office and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney clashed Friday before a federal judge over which branch of government's claim is paramount: the executive power to keep records confidential or the legislative right to investigate how public money is spent.

For the first time in the 81-year history of the agency, the auditing arm of Congress, the comptroller general of the United States went to federal court to ask a judge to order a member of the executive branch to turn over records to Congress.

Lawyers for David Walker, the comptroller general and head of the General Accounting Office, and for the vice president argued over whether a judge could require the White House to reveal the identities of industry executives who helped the administration develop its energy policy last year.

Judge John Bates of Federal District Court, who was appointed in December by U.S. President George W. Bush, did not decide the case Friday. "I will consider this as quickly as I can," Judge Bates said before returning to his chamber.

The lawsuit, Walker v. Cheney, raises important constitutional questions, including whether the vice president can ignore a request for information from the accounting office without the president's exercise of executive privilege.

It also carries potential political consequences for the White House since the dispute has made it difficult for the administration to distance itself from the collapse of the Enron Corporation, whose executives met with Cheney and other task force members six times last year.

Carter Phillips, a lawyer representing the accounting office, argued that if Judge Bates sided with the administration, the decision would have a devastating effect on "the GAO's ability to do its job."

Phillips argued that a 22-year-old law allowed the comptroller general to "investigate all matters related to the receipt, disbursement and use of public money."

He also contended that the law gives the comptroller general the right to obtain all "information the comptroller requires about the duties, powers, activities, organization and financial transactions" of the agency under investigation.

Paul Clement, the principal deputy solicitor general, representing Cheney, told the judge that the agency lacked the legal standing to bring the case against the vice president. Clement also argued that the law cited by Phillips did not give the accounting office the authority to demand records from the vice president.

"No court that I'm aware of has ever ordered the executive branch to turn over a document to a congressional agent," Clement argued. "This is unprecedented."

From February to May last year, Cheney and the task force held a series of meetings with as many as 400 people from 150 corporations, trade associations, environmental groups and labor unions to devise a new energy policy for the nation. The task force report recommended more drilling for oil and gas and promoted the need to build 1,300 to 1,900 electric plants to meet the nation's projected energy demand over the next two decades.

Since May 2001, the administration has repeatedly refused to turn over the documents the General Accounting Office seeks: lists of people present at each meeting of the national energy task force and lists of the people who met with each member of the task force, including the date, subject and location of each meeting.

In February, the office sued Cheney for the documents.

Last summer, the administration turned over 77 pages of documents to the accounting office related to the costs of the task force. But Mr. Walter said those documents did not provide the identities of the industry executives who had advised the task force.