Monday, January 28, 2002

White House expects court fight over Enron




The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney says the Bush administration's refusal to identify business executives who met with him and his aides concerning energy policy probably will end up in court.

        Amid the Enron Corp. scandal, Cheney on Sunday defended President Bush's right to withhold the information, prompting accusations by some Democrats of White House stonewalling.

        The head of the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, said he will decide this week whether to sue to force the White House to turn over documents on the meetings last year with representatives of energy companies. They included the now-collapsed Enron, a Houston-based concern with deep ties to Bush.

        On television talk shows, Cheney acknowledged that the dispute “probably will get resolved in court.” Last week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had left open the possibility of a compromise.

        “The ball is in the White House's court,” Comptroller General David Walker, who heads the GAO, said Sunday in a telephone interview.

        The White House said recently that representatives of Enron, an energy trader that was ranked as the seventh-largest U.S. corporation, met six times on energy issues last year with Cheney or his aides.

        Thousands of employees and big and small investors nationwide lost fortunes in Enron's plunging stock as the company spiraled into the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history on Dec. 2.

        The Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation of Enron and its longtime auditor, the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. The Securities and Exchange Commission has been investigating since Oct. 31. Eleven congressional panels also have opened inquiries.

        Asked whether anything in the energy plan was included specifically for Enron or at its urging, Cheney replied: “I can't say. I'm sure they supported many parts of it. ... I can't say a particular proposal came from them.”

        Cheney also defended the conduct of Army Secretary Thomas White, a former vice chairman of Enron's energy services division, which reportedly was one of the units used to conceal the company's huge losses. Enron overstated its total profits by more than $580 million since 1997.

        White has “always conducted himself in an ethically fine manner,” Cheney said. “There's no evidence to indicate anybody did anything wrong in the administration.”

        The vice president's comments raised the prospect of a battle over presidential privilege reminiscent of the Clinton administration's bitter Whitewater disputes with Republican lawmakers.

        Democratic leaders said the White House is making a serious mistake, and they predicted Enron would be a looming issue in this year's election campaigns.

        “The American people have a right to know what the facts are,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. “I think the administration needs to open up, to be willing to be forthcoming with all the information regarding these circumstances.”

        Cheney insisted that providing the list of industry executives would harm his ability to receive advice in the future.

        “Now that would be unprecedented ... in the sense that it would make it virtually impossible for me to have confidential conversations with anybody,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

        “You just cannot accept that proposition without putting a chill over the ability of the president and vice president to receive unvarnished advice.”

        Cheney's comments escalated the months-old dispute between the White House and Congress' GAO over documents related to his task force that formulated a pro-industry national energy policy last May — including expanding oil and gas drilling on public land.

        The administration has refused to fully disclose its contacts with the energy industry, but Cheney said his office already has given congressional investigators numerous documents.

        Cheney spoke as a New York Times/CBS News Poll said a majority of Americans believe the administration is hiding something or lying about its dealings with Enron.

        On ABC's “This Week,” Cheney said, “Now the fact is, Enron didn't get any special deals. Enron's been treated appropriately by this administration.”

        He suggested the GAO was unfairly pressuring Bush to forgo his constitutional privilege during the U.S. war against terrorism.

        In the Fox interview he asked, “Can you imagine an FDR or Teddy Roosevelt, in the midst of a grave national crisis, dealing with the problems we're having to deal with now, ... trading away a very important fundamental principle of the presidency?”

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