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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 05:34 GMT
White House resists Enron challenge
Vice President Dick Cheney responding to Enron questions on US television
Cheney's taskforce met Enron at least six times last year
The White House says it will vigorously defend itself against a lawsuit filed by US congressional investigators looking into the government's consultations on energy policy with companies including Enron.


The White House expects to prevail because our case is strong

Ari Fleischer,
White House spokesman
The General Accounting Office - the investigative arm of Congress - wants the Vice President, Dick Cheney, to release information about the special energy taskforce he headed.

White House officials have refused to hand over records of the taskforce, arguing that this would stop the administration from getting candid advice from outside experts.

The GAO investigation is quite separate from official inquiries into the collapse of Enron over debt and accounting irregularities, and began as long ago as April 2001.

Sunset over power station
Critics accuse Bush of being in the pocket of the energy companies
But interest in the documents has increased as nine congressional inquiries begin probing Enron's business practices, the failure of government regulation and whether the company exercised undue influence over government policy.

The GAO specifically wants details of the discussions between the taskforce and Enron to find out what influence the corporation and other energy companies had on its final energy proposals.

In a letter to the White House, Comptroller General David Walker said he "would have strongly preferred to avoid litigation in connection with this matter", but would now file suit in a US district court.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration was confident it would win the court case.

Candid advice

The White House is withholding the records of the National Energy Policy Development Group on a point of principle. Surrendering the details of the talks, officials say, would make it impossible for governments to hold private and uninhibited discussions in the future.

GAO investigation
Who was present at each meeting of the energy task force?
What are the names of the professional staff assigned to the task force?
Who did the task force members meet, and why and when?
What direct and indirect costs were incurred in developing the National Energy Policy?

Mr Cheney said there were no secrets to hide: "We talked to all kinds of people. I talked to energy companies, I talked to labour members, talked to environmentalists."

Mr Fleischer added the president would "stand for the right of presidents... to receive candid advice without it being turned into a news release".

The GAO counters that "contrary to recent assertions, we are not seeking the minutes of these meetings or related notes of the vice president's staff".

But critics have accused the government of being too close to industry interests when it formulated its federal energy plan last spring.

Enron and its chief executive Kenneth Lay were generous donors to the election campaign of President George W Bush, although the firm showered money on senators and representatives from both parties.

Potential embarrassment

The man behind the lawsuit is the comptroller general, David Walker, who is in charge of the General Accounting Office.

He has impeccable Republican credentials, and was a volunteer working for the presidential campaign of George Bush Sr.

Despite this partisan background, Mr Walker said his team was ready "to do our job", arguing that the GAO had the right to get the information, because the energy task force was funded by taxpayers.

The BBC's Michael Buchanan in Washington says members from both parties are seeking detailed disclosures of Enron's discussions with the energy taskforce.

What the administration paints as nothing murkier than a business failure, he says, has the potential, therefore, to turn into a political embarrassment.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jon Devitt
"At the moment it's guilt by association"
The BBC's Mike Fox
"The government's energy policy proved to be controversial"
US Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman
"I regret that the Whitehouse is insisting on secrecy"
See also:

30 Jan 02 | Business
Tyco hit by 'Enron ripple'
30 Jan 02 | Business
Cooper comes to Enron's rescue
29 Jan 02 | Business
Andersen on the defensive
28 Jan 02 | Business
Cheney resists Enron probe
10 Jan 02 | Americas
White House plays down Enron links
12 Jan 02 | Business
Enron chief asked Treasury for help
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